In my hometown, there is a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Civil War General Grant spent his boyhood years in Georgetown, OH, just a few blocks away from my childhood home. However, it wasn't until fairly recently that the people of Georgetown erected a statue to their favorite son. It stands as a tribute, however long overdue, to an American hero. If any person deserves to be immortalized as a statue, then Ulysses S. Grant is one such person. We build statues to honor those men and women who left the world a bit better than they found it; usually at heavy personal cost. We build statues to men and women who children can look up to, cities can take pride in, and future generations can use as a source of inspiration. We don't build statues to men and women, because they are perfect. On the contrary, usually they are far from it. However, mortal as they might be, those we choose to honor with a place of prominence in our parks and squares, are generally there because when faced with the defining issues of their time, they tried to do what was right. For all of his faults, Ulysses S. Grant, both as general and President, tried to do what was right.
As an student at Alverda Reed Elementary, I remember taking an across town field trip to visit Grant's boyhood home. I remember learning that his father's tannery was once located nearby the house. I don't remember learning what a tannery was. A few blocks away was the Grant schoolhouse where the future president once attended. In fact, much of the surrounding area is often referred to as the "Land of Grant." In celebration of General Grant's service to our country during the Civil War, the first annual U.S. Grant Days celebration was organized in Georgetown in 1997. However, as a child I don't remember hearing much of anything about the fact that Ulysses Grant was once President of the United States. A quick review of usgrantboyhoodhome.org makes few references to his 8 years in the White House. The reason is simple: Grant's presidency was a failure. This is what I remember learning in high school. This was the predominate view of our 18th President for many years. However, as the decades have passed, the longstanding view of U.S. Grant as one of our worse presidents has been challenged. The truth is, Grant is finally getting the credit he rightfully deserves.
The years of 1854 - 1860 are some of the most difficult and trying times in American history. Slavery was spreading. A massive economic recession crippled the nation. There were riots in the streets of Northern cities as slave catchers from the South began to round up runaway slaves. Shameful legislation such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, emboldened the slave powers and Southern radicals. A miniature Civil War broke out in Kansas over the issue of slavery. A radical Christian terrorist named John Brown murdered numerous people and tried to lead a slave rebellion against the U.S. government. A Southern Congressman, Preston Brooks, nearly beat Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the Senate floor for besmirching the character of Dixie. The nation was falling apart. Congress was filled with a mixture of extremists, ideologues, and a severe lack of courage. The White House was home to over matched, weak, southern apologists. Ulysses Grant was experiencing hardship as well. He attempted to become a farmer. He failed. He started businesses. They failed. It seemed that the only life that suited him less than the military life, was the civilian life.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, southern states began to secede from the Union and the Confederate States of America was formed. When southern soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter, Grant made the decision that was change the course of his life; he volunteered to, once again, enlist in the army. To Grant, there was no debate; the cause of the Union was just, and the war must be won. Grant made his feelings clear when he wrote his father "There are but two parties now, Traitors and Patriots."
Those who know much about the Civil War, know that the early day of the war saw a series of victories by the Confederacy and a series of military blunders by the Union. President Lincoln promoted a host of generals, only then to fire each one after devastating losses and displays of timid leadership. In the eastern theater of war, the weaker Confederacy, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, was threatening to actually win the war. There were those in the North who were ready to negotiate with the South, end the war, and allow the slavery to endure for generations.
The West was a different story. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi the Union was showing promise and Grant was moving up the ranks. Grant understood, what Lincoln knew, the North was far stronger than the South and this fact needed to be made known on the battlefield. Grant was willing to send wave after wave of Union soldiers at the Confederate lines in order to overwhelm the rebels and win the day. Such an aggressive fighting style led to heavy casualties, leading many in Washington to call for Grant's dismissal. Lincoln's response was simple: "I can't spare this man - he fights!"
In early 1864, Lincoln gave Grant command of all Union armies. Grant traveled east to face Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln expected Grant to destroy Lee, break the South, and end the crisis with the same tactics that had earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The General would not disappoint. Grant dispatched General William Tecumseh Sherman to wage total war on the Confederacy's ability to make war. Meanwhile, Grant relentlessly pursued Lee throughout the Virginia wilderness. By early 1865, southern cities were crumbling. Once grand plantations were overgrown, if not burned to the ground. Southern railroad lines had been pulled from the ground and twisted around trees. General Lee's army was beaten, starving, and desperate. Lee sent word to Grant that he was ready to talk.
Grant and Lee met at McLean house in Appomattox Court House. When Grant wrote the terms of surrender, as ordered by Lincoln, Lee was shocked at the generosity. In short, Grant ordered Lee to stop fighting, turn over their weapons, and go home. There would be no punishment, no vengeance, just peace. Grant even let Lee's men keep their horses and mules. These were no longer weapons of war, now they would return to the southern farms to rebuild lives. The Confederate soldiers were granted parole, fed, and sent on their way. The war was over.
As soon as the guns fell silent on the battlefield, the nation was thrust into a new crisis: Reconstruction. The final casualty of the Civil War and first casualty of the new conflict was President Abraham Lincoln; killed by a southern extremist on April 15, 1865. The next decade of Reconstruction would prove to be the only event in American history to rival the Civil War in terms of divisiveness.
For his part, Grant favored amnesty for most Confederate leaders, but also believed that the South must be remade economically and socially. He favored legal protections for recently freed slaves (freedmen) and generally sided with the Republicans in Congress by supporting their Reconstruction Acts. Congress promoted Grant to the rank of General of the Army of the United States, making him the highest ranking military officer in American history to that point.
Grant had a very uneasy relationship with President Johnson following Lincoln's assassination. Johnson's leniency toward the South, lack of support for freedman, and hostility toward Congress made it difficult for Grant to remain supportive of his Commander-in-Chief. Eventually, Grant privately supported the efforts by the Republicans in Congress to impeach the embattled President.
In 1868, Grant was nominated overwhelmingly by the Republicans to be their presidential candidate. In the North, Ulysses Grant was viewed as a war hero and savior of the Union. In the South, he was viewed as a conqueror and butcher. Grant benefited from tremendous support in the North, but also nearly unanimous support from African Americans in the South who were able to vote for the first time. It also helped that several Southern/Democratic states had not yet been readmitted to the Union and therefore could not vote. Grant won in landslide. At 46 years old, he became the youngest person ever elected President to that point in history.
As President, Grant tried to do the right thing. His campaign slogan was "Let us have peace" and he meant it. This meant peace between the North and South, between whites and blacks, between the U.S. government and Native Americans. The degree to which he succeeded is still a matter of debate, but he should be given credit at least for trying to be on the right side of history.
Grant was a strong supporter of the proposed Fifteenth Amendment which would prevent discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of race, ethnicity, or previous condition of servitude. He took steps to ensure that the voting rights of blacks were protected, but also that former slaves were represented in southern legislatures. When the newly formed Ku Klux Klan began terrorizing blacks in the South, Grant, working with Congress, empowered his Justice Department to prosecute Klansmen. In regards to civil rights and equal protection under the law, President Grant was quite progressive for his time. Members of the Klan would disagree.
Grant also pursued a policy of peace toward Native Americans in the western frontier. For decades the American government had signed hundreds of treaties with dozens of Native American tribes. The majority of Native American land hand been unfairly seized and tens of thousands of people had been forced onto reservations. Administration of reservations was overwhelmed by corruption and greed. Grant hoped to clean up the corrupt administration by pointing a member of the Seneca tribe as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Unfortunately for Grant, decades of mistrust, broken promises, and mistreatment by the U.S. government proved to be too much for any administration to overcome. Settlers and the U.S. Army came into repeated conflict with Plains Indians. Often times this conflict arose from white settlers encroaching on land promised to various Indian tribes. In response, the Indians fought back and were in turn often slaughtered by the U.S. Army. It was during Grant's tenure in the White House that General George A. Custer's cavalry was massacred on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. This Indian victory was an exception to the overwhelmingly one-sided, devastating military campaign by the U.S. government aimed at taking land away from Native tribes. Despite his early ambitions, Grant's administration was simply one in a long line of administrations that slowly stripped American Indians of their homes, land, and way of life.
Grant's time in office also suffered from a financial disaster known as the Panic of 1873. A banking collapse on Wall Street led to the bankruptcy of dozens of railroads, high unemployment, and foreclosures. This, combined with low agricultural prices which were hurting western farmers created a recession that would last the better part of the next decade. Grant, like all politicians at the time, had little idea what to do and had little success instilling in confidence in the American worker. Boom and bust economies was a hallmark of the United States in the 1800s and Grant's administration was no immune to the instability of our nation's financial system.
Grant left office in 1877, politically wounded from his 8 years in the White House. He and his wife Julia set out on a world tour that would last nearly 3 years. Grant visited with nearly every leader in Europe. He dined with Queen Victoria, met with Otto Von Bismark, and discussed politics with the Czar of Russia. The Grants toured the Middle East and concluded their travels in China and Japan. Grant returned home in 1879 to a hero's welcome. Much of the Republican Party had forgiven Grant for his lackluster Presidency and were nostalgic for the days when their party, led by Lincoln and Grant, had saved the Union. His political reputation having been repaired, Grant became the first person in American history to seek a 3rd term as President. Unfortunately for Grant, his nomination cam up a bit short at the Republican convention as the GOP nominated former Civil War General, Congressman James Garfield of Ohio.
Years after leaving public life, Grant invested his savings in an investment firm started by his son and his business partner Ferdinand Ward. It wasn't long before the firm went bankrupt due to unwise and illicit business practices by Ward. The firm failed and Grant lost everything. The former President was essentially penniless. In an attempt to save the family from financial ruin, Grant began writing articles for a magazine. The articles became so popular that the magazine asked Grant to write his memoirs. The magazine didn't offer much money, but luckily for Grant, Mark Twain stepped in and offered Grant far more money if he would allow Twain's company to publish the memoir. Grant agreed.
Around the same time, Grant's received devastating news. The ex-President had throat cancer. Considering that Grant was known to smoke as many as 20 cigars a day, this came as no surprise. For the better part of a year, Grant's health deteriorated. Despite being in almost constant agony, Grant was determined to finish his memoirs in hopes of providing for his so-to-be widowed wife. Grant finished his memoir in mid-July 1885; days later he died.
Grant's memoir went on to be a critical and commercial success. The proceeds provided a comfortable life for his late wife for years to come. The book is still widely read and highly regarded today, setting a precedent that many former presidents have followed. Grant was laid to rest in New York City and was remembered a the savior of the Union for his service in the Civil War. No doubt the years of 1861-1865 were the the ones in which U.S. Grant contributed the most to our nation. However, as the years pass and we are able to see the progressive stances President Grant took, particularly in the area of civil rights, his presidency is being viewed in a new light. Though he certainly was mediocre at many aspects of governance, President Grant tried to stand on the right side of history. For that, and his selfless leadership during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant deserves that statue in Georgetown, OH.
A few weeks ago, I read a headline that said that former President Jimmy Carter had to receive medical treatment after suffering from dehydration while helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house. The 39th President recovered and went right back to work serving others. No one should be surprised that Jimmy Carter was spending his time helping a wonderful organization like Habitat do meaningful work providing homes to families in need. No one should be surprised that a few times a month, Jimmy Carter voluntarily teaches Sunday School at his home church in Plains, Georgia. No one should be surprised, because Jimmy Carter's life as been one of public service. Now, at 92 years old, the ex-President still seeks to be an advocate for those in need, pursue social justice, and set an example of dignity. Jimmy Carter is an international statesman, a veteran, and a true public servant. However, he achieved most of his acclaim after 4 trying years in the White House.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter appeared to be the perfect candidate for the perfect time. For the past, 8 years, the United States was a political and social mess. The economy was in decline. Race relations were far from ideal. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal created a mistrust of government never before seen in American history. Despite the efforts of a good and decent man, President Gerald Ford, Americans wanted a break from business as usual in Washington. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia offered something new. He was not part of the swamp of Washington. He was an outsider. Furthermore, Carter, an outspoken born again Christian, carried himself with a level of integrity, humility, and honesty, not often seen on the banks of the Potomac. In a close election, Carter defeated the incumbent Ford and became the 39th President of the United States.
Critics of President Carter regard his presidency as one of the true failures of the 20th Century. He was a weak leader that accomplished nothing and diminished our standing in the world. These charges, serious as they may be, are overstated. Yes, Cater was a weak President. He lost the confidence of Congress, and more importantly, the American people. However, for all of his presidential shortcomings, Carter had several significant achievements that help to balance out the struggles.
First and foremost, Jimmy Carter is a good person. He conducted himself and his administration with decency and respect. While this is far from a guarantee of strong leadership, it is significant because of the aforementioned political disgraces of early 1970s. It is important that Americans trust and respect their president, even if they don't agree with him. Carter made the presidency respectable again. A process started by his predecessor Gerald Ford. His sincere religious faith, while off putting to some, served as an asset in the early days of his administration. However, some of the support he enjoyed from the emerging evangelical movement began to evaporate when conservative religious leaders realized that Carter wasn't going to use the office to further their worldview. Nevertheless, Carter was and is well respected for his character.
Finding real domestic achievements is a challenge when studying Jimmy Carter. One of the main reasons for this is that Carter had terrible relations with Congress. Carter had no relationships with the leaders on the Hill, and generally refused to play the quid pro quo games necessary to move legislation forward. As much as Americans claim they want a Washington "outsider" to shake things up in D.C., the truth is that the ability to cultivate, maintain, and benefit from relationships with Congress are often times the most important qualities in a successful presidency. Carter was a true outsider, this played well on the campaign trail, but hindered him once he attempted to govern.
For all of his struggles with Congress, Carter did have significant achievements on the world stage. The President improved relations with China, Latin America, and signed a significant arms limitations treaty with the Soviet Union. However, it will be his efforts in the Middle East that will be the crowning achievement of the Carter presidency.
The state of Israel was established in 1948, following the end of World War II. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel was under nearly constant attack. Several declared wars and multiple armed conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors occurred between 1948 - 1976. Israel's largest and strongest enemy was Egypt. Often times, when conflicts would arise in the region, Egypt was leading the charge against the Jewish state. Hoping to establish some sort of peace in the troubled area, Carter invited President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin to Camp David to hammer out a peace agreement. After days of arguing and intensive negotiations, Carter personally brokered peace between the two historic enemies. In return for territorial concessions, Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. While there are many other aspects of the accords that had long lasting effects, the important part is that Carter successfully championed the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East ever taken in the twentieth century.
If the Middle East was the source of Carter's greatest triumph, it was also the cause of his greatest challenge in November 1979, the American embassy in Tehran, Iran was stormed and 52 Americans were taken hostage. The new Islamic leaders of Iran, were unwilling to release the hostages, it was payback for years of American support for the oppressive regime of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Months and months of negotiations and a failed rescue attempt yielded no results. Meanwhile, images of blindfolded American diplomats appeared on American news channels on a nightly basis.
In addition to the hostage crisis, an oil shortage and energy crisis began to take its toll on the American economy. The United States' over reliance on foreign oil was proving to be a reality as an embargo led to long lines at gas stations across the nation. With prices rising, Carter proved to more of a lecturing parent and less of a leader. The President traded in his suit jacket for a sweater and encouraged Americans to do the same in an attempt to reduce energy consumption. When he gave a speech about the crisis on national television, the President's tone was less than inspirational and was met with ridicule and anger.
Jimmy Carter returned home to Georgia before embarking on a career as an international advocate for human rights. His work to ensure safe, fair, and free elections around the world has earned him international praise. His support for organizations like Habitat for Humanity has earned him the respect of even his harshest critics. In many ways, Jimmy Carter will be remembered more for his groundbreaking post presidency than for his tremulous four years in the White House.
I can't imagine what was going through Gerald Ford's head on August 9, 1974 as he solemnly took the oath of office to become the 38th President of the United States. Ford wasn't elected President, he never asked for the job. Ford wasn't even elected Vice President. Less than one year earlier, Ford was serving his 13th and perhaps final term as Congressman from Michigan's 5th district. Yet here he was, being sworn in to become the most powerful person in the world in the midst of a national constitutional crisis. How did this happen?
Gerald Ford had an interesting road to the presidency. He wasn't a child of privilege. Ford's mother Dorothy fled an abusive marriage when Gerald, then named Leslie King, was only days old. After seeking safety with family, Dorothy eventually met and married Gerald Rudolff Ford. The elder Ford provided, what the President later described as a "superb family upbringing." As a child, young Leslie King officially changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Making Gerald Ford the only former King to ever become President of the United States.
Ford excelled academically and athletically. He attended the University of Michigan where he played for the Wolverines football team, helping to lead them to two national titles in 1932 and 1933. After college, he moved to New Haven, CT where he enrolled in Yale University to study law. He graduated in 1941, but like so many other young Americans his life plans changed on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, Ford ran for Congress. He won his first race and would serve in the House of Representatives continuously until 1973. Then everything changed.
Congress overwhelming supported his nomination and Ford became the 40th Vice President of the United States in December 1973. He convinced his wife, who was tired of politics, to support the idea by assuring her that the Vice President is more of a ceremonial position that doesn't really do anything. The next few years, he believed, would be easy as compared to the rough and tumble world of Congressional politics.
When it became evident that Richard Nixon was going to be impeached for his role in covering up the Watergate break-in and interfering with the instigation, Ford must have known that his life was going to become much more complicated than he ever could have imagined when he agreed to accept the nomination as Vice President. Facing tough midterm elections, Congressional Republicans turned on Nixon. Party leaders urged the President to resign immediately. They were prepared to join with Democrats to impeach the President for crimes against the United States. Nixon wisely listened and Gerald Ford, a man who didn't run for the office, was now President of the United States.
It is within this context, that President Ford made the most important and controversial decision of his presidency: he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford, who in no way condoned the secretive illegal actions of the Nixon administration, wanted to move on from the issue. There was an uneasy cease fire in Vietnam. Inflation was wrecking the American economy. The US was pursuing a policy of detente toward the Soviet Union. The trial of a former president, that may drag on for more than a year, could prove to be a dangerous and painful distraction from the issues of the day. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, an affirmative statement that he had committed a crime, put the nation was going to move on.
Moving on from Nixon might have been done with the stroke of the President's pen, but moving forward with the business of the nation would not prove to be so easy. Because Ford did not run for the office, Ford had no clear agenda. He was a Congressman, and a good one, but he had not spend months crafting policy statements and laying the groundwork for domestic agenda or foreign policy. He was thrust into the administration by the 25th Amendment and became President as a result of Nixon's crimes. He didn't ask for this. He had to put together a new cabinet, introduce himself to the nation, work with Congress, and even move his family into the White House all in a matter of weeks. Ford was hamstrung from the beginning.
The midterm elections of 1974 were a disaster for the Republican Party. The GOP broke from Nixon when they realized that he put their electoral prospects in jeopardy in 1974. Even though Nixon was gone, the damage to the Republican brand was done. Democrats strengthened their control of both houses of Congress; essentially making any legislation they passed veto proof. Throughout the remainder of his term, Democrats had very little to gain politically by working with the President.
Ford's lack of an agenda hampered him when dealing with the issues of the day. When South Vietnam fell to the communist North, Ford could do nothing to help stop the crisis. When the economy worsened, Ford introduced a policy that proved to be little more than a public relations stunt. The W.I.N (Whip Inflation Now) campaign, encouraged Americans to reduce their spending. It didn't help. Over the course of the recession Ford urged Congress to raised taxes to fight inflation and then reduce taxes to combat unemployment. The message was messy, confusing, and did little to inspire confidence in the Ford administration.
We've entered that part of the countdown that gets really tough. The reason being is that on the next few Presidents could all be characterized as "fair". Not good. Not bad. Just fair. Any one of the next few entries could swap places with another and you wouldn't hear an argument from me. It is also difficult because finding real legislative or diplomatic, achievements for our next group of leaders is quite a challenge. So, lets start with some fun facts:
Grover Cleveland is the only President to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. He served four years, before being defeated in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland went home for four years before returning to the White House in 1892. Making Cleveland both our nation's 22nd and 24th President.
As President, Grover Cleveland, age 49, married the 21 year old Francis Folsom. Cleveland had served as Francis's legal guardian after her father died when she was a child. Though their marriage is considered odd by today's standards (and very creepy by my students) in her day Francis Cleveland became an adored celebrity by the American public.
During his second term, Cleveland took a "vacation" aboard a friend's yacht. The true purpose of the expedition on the Long Island Sound was so that a doctor could secretly remove a cancerous tumor from the President's mouth without the press or Congress learning about the illness. Surgery was tricky in the 1890s. Surgery aboard a yacht was downright dangerous. Cleveland survived, the surgery remained a secret for years, and the tumor is on display to this day.
Cleveland had developed a reputation for hard work and honesty throughout his legal and political career. Known as Grover "The Good" for his character, he was difficult to attack during the campaign. However, his opponents pounced on claims that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Despite the wishes of his advisers, Cleveland came clean. Yes, he had a child with a woman that wan't his wife. Yes, he had taken responsibility for his son. This kind of honesty was well received by the voters and should serve as a lesson for all politicians embroiled in an embarrassing scandal. Tell the truth. In November 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat in a generation to be elected to the nation's highest office.
During his time in Albany, Grover Cleveland became known for his strong and sincere belief in limited government. If his legislature passed laws he thought were frivolous, unnecessary, inappropriate for the government, or simply a waste of money, Cleveland had no problem vetoing them. His tendency to use such executive power earned him the name the "veto governor." As President, Cleveland brought the same by-the-book prudence to Washington. Not only would he veto bills he thought were wasteful, regardless of their intention, he encouraged Congress to take actions to limit the government's ability to grow.
A good example of this was his campaign against the federal tariff. Protective tariffs were a favorite tool of northern industrialists and Republicans. Many Democrats thought the increased prices created by taxes on imports were bad for the consumer. Cleveland agreed, but also felt that the federal government was simply bringing in too much money. The government was regularly running a surplus (what a problem to have) and Cleveland believed it was unfair to the people to take more of their money than was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, having so much extra treasure in the federal coffers would lead to wasteful spending on unnecessary programs. Cleveland successfully negotiated a lowering of the tariff.
Cleveland's support of a lower tariff was certainly based upon principle, but it probably cost him the election on 1888. The focus of the Republican campaign was tariff. They claimed that reducing the tariff hurt industrial workers in the North. Furthermore, they wisely chose a vice presidential candidate from New York in an effort to steal votes from President Cleveland's home state. Cleveland's association with an unpopular New York Governor, no doubt hurt as well. The plan worked and the Republican Benjamin Harrison won the election. Cleveland actually narrowly won the popular vote, but did not secure the necessary electoral votes. This fact hindered Harrison's presidency and would serve Cleveland well when he ran again in 4 years. On inauguration, Cleveland, gracious in defeat, held an umbrella over President Harrison while he took the oath of office. Francis Cleveland, meanwhile, instructed the White House staff to take good care of the place until they returned.
Four years, after a less than inspiring, largely ineffective Harrison administration, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland once again. In 1892, the economy was beginning to show signs of decline. A new political movement, populism began to take hold in western states. The populists called for greater government involvement in the economy. They advocated for policies that would protect workers, limit the power of monopolies, and give a greater voice to average Americans in the electoral process. Though Cleveland was far from a populist (certainly not economically), but he was more preferable to most Americans than the Republican Harrison. In 1892, Grover Cleveland became the first (and only) person to be elected President after previously being defeated as an incumbent.
Cleveland's lack of responsiveness to calls for action by the American people would come to define the President's second term. What was becoming evident in the 1890s, was that Americans expected more from their government The seeds of Progressivism were being sown in state capitols of the Midwest, big cities in the East, and farmer's organizations of the West. The hands-off, laissez-faire approach to governance that had come to symbolize the Gilded Age was ending and a new era of democratic activism was rapidly approaching as the nation prepared to enter the 20th century. Grover Cleveland was an decent, respectable, capable administrator. He served the United States with honor, but it appears he was unable to adjust to changing political climate of his second term. In the end, he proved to be Grover "The Good"...enough.
"I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has very little respect for laws and constitutions [...] His passions are terrible. [...] His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; [...] but he is a dangerous man." - Thomas Jefferson (1824)
A few years ago, I walking through through Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom with my wife and mother-in-law. Seeking a break from the Florida heat, we decided to check out an attraction I'd never seen before: The Hall of Presidents. I would no doubt enjoy the show for two reasons. First of all, I'm a history teacher who enjoys the study of U.S. Presidents. Secondly, the theater was air conditioned. The show features audio anamotronic models of all former presidents. It is a celebration of the Constitution and the men who have led our nation. While all presidents are featured, a few have extended video tributes because of their disproportional positive impact on our country. Much to my surprise, featured along side Lincoln and Washington was Andrew Jackson; the champion of the common man. I couldn't help but glance over at the robotic Mr. Jefferson to see if he shared my surprise at the reverence paid to General Jackson. Sadly, Imagineering has yet to advance far enough to capture our 3rd president's astonishment.
Opinions regarding Andrew Jackson are numerous and passionate. A review 20th century history books will portray him as a hero for the common man, a military genius, and a titanic figure on the pages of American history. Modern day critiques, will regard him as emotionally unbalanced, a wild man, a racist, a brutal military commander, and a stain on the American presidency. Which vision of Andrew Jackson is correct? Both, depending one's point of view.
After the war, Jackson studied law and moved to the territory that would become Tennessee. He quickly found that he a knack for the legal circuit and for politics. He became a delegate helping to draft Tennessee's constitution in its bid for statehood. Jackson's successes led to wealth and he soon overcame his modest beginnings and began his transformation into one of the planter aristocracy. He acquired numerous slaves and a a plantation known as the Hermitage. Jackson was elected to the United States House of Representatives and later the Senate, where he made a less than positive impression on then Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
For all of his political successes, it is for his success on the battlefield that made Andrew Jackson a national figure; and a controversial one at that. Upon the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain during the War of 1812, Jackson organized a group of volunteers to defend the western lands from the British. Most of Jackson's fighting was done on the frontier against Native American allies of the British. On the battlefield he proved to be a skilled and successful commander of men. This was also where his cruelty began to show through. Not only was Jackson incredibly ruthless toward his enemies, he had little stomach for disloyalty or insubordination. He is known to have had at least 6 of his own men executed for refusing to follow orders. This was against the recommendation of the soldier's court martial. Despite his harshness as a leader, it seems men were willing to rally behind the general and give their all for him. Nowhere was this more evident than the famed Battle of New Orleans.
When Jackson's men arrived in the Crescent City, they knew that holding the city was crucial. Whoever controlled New Orleans, controlled the Mississippi. Whoever controlled the Mississippi, controlled access to the west. The General controversially declared martial law in the city and began preparations for battle. Jackson's ragtag group of volunteers from many different walks of life, joined together with American regulars and awaited for the British attack. The British arrived with roughly 10,000 soldiers, nearly double the American forces. In a shockingly one-sided affair, Jackson's forces decimated the British invaders. The red coats suffered more than 2,000 casualties. The Americans only 71. New Orleans was defended, the British forces retreated, and Andrew Jackson became a national hero. The fact that the war officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent two weeks before the battle, mattered little to American public (news traveled very slowly in 1815). The War of 1812, was by any military measure, a draw. But to Americans at the time, it was viewed as a Second War of Independence and Andrew Jackson was viewed as this generation's George Washington. Jackson's march toward the White House was launched on the banks of the mighty Mississippi in 1815.
Thirteen years would pass between the Battle of New Orleans and Jackson's election to the presidency. In the interim, General Jackson continued leading troops throughout the southern United States fighting Indians. He created an international incident and nearly started a war with two countries when he overstepped orders, invaded Spanish Florida, and executed two British citizens. In 1824, Jackson was denied the presidency despite winning the popular vote and securing the most electoral votes, but failing to get a majority. Will discuss this event in more detail in future posts, but Jackson's "loss" in 1824 helped to mobilize political factions of everyday Americans into what would become the Democratic Party. In 1828, Jackson had his party were back with a vengeance.
Jackson won in a landslide. He had captured the vote of the common man. However, it is important to understand what this term meant in 1820s America. The "common man" only applied to the common white man. Women, slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans were certainly not included in this number. Jackson was the first President who attempted to appeal to the average white man, because for the first time their votes were important. By 1828, there was nearly universal white male suffrage. Early Presidents didn't worry about the votes of average Americans, most states didn't even count them. Common people didn't vote for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or Monroe, These leaders were chosen exclusively by the Electoral College without consideration of the common person's wishes. This was perfectly in line with the Framer's intentions. But now, with the removal of property requirements and an ever expanding male electorate, being a champion for the "common man" became a political necessity. So, Andrew Jackson, who lived in one of the finest homes in the nation, and possessed more wealth than most Americans could ever dream, was viewed as a working man's President. The transition of power from educated elites to ordinary white American males signaled the rise of mass democracy in America and came to be known as the Age of Jackson. Thousands of everyday Americans descended upon Washington to celebrate the inauguration of "Old Hickory" as President. Though the streets were filled with excitement, Jackson was in mourning as he took the oath of office. Just weeks after his election, Jackson's wife Rachel died suddenly of a heart attack. She was buried at Jackson's Tennessee plantation wearing the dress she had recently purchased for the inauguration. Yet again, Andrew Jackson had lost the most important person in his life.
Andrew Jackson was claimed to be a Jeffersonain, which is to say that he believed in a limited role for the federal government. Yet, much like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the government once he was in power. In particular, Andrew Jackson expanded the power of the presidency itself. To Jackson, he represented the common man, therefore anything he wanted to do was something the common man must also want. Any personal slight against him, was a slight against the common man. More than any previous President, Andrew Jackson's temperament, or lack thereof, defined his actions in the White House. The policies he pursued can best be understood as settling a personal score between himself and a political opponent or as an attempt to further the cause of the common white man; sometimes both.
One of the first actions taken by the new President was to fire dozens of civil servants; many of whom had served through several previous administrations. Jackson called his policy "rotation in office." Jackson argued that civil service jobs belonged to the people, not to the current office holders, and it was only healthy that more citizens should have an opportunity to serve their country. In reality, Jackson was hiring his friends and firing his enemies. Critics called this form of political patronage the "spoils system" and it came to define the federal government for the next 60 years, leading to decades of corruption and inefficiency. Jackson may have wanted to drain the swamp, but instead he simply made it more stagnant.
Early in Jackson's first term he faced the prospect of a national crisis as the state of South Carolina claimed that it had the authority to nullify a federal law. The federal tariff (a tax on imports) was a law that primarily benefited northern industry and merchants at the expense of southern planters. The reason being that, because of their refusal to diversify their slave-based economy, southerners imported all manufactured goods. Therefore, they resented the higher price they had to pay because of the tariff. When the southern economy began to falter (do to a fall in cotton prices), South Carolinains blamed the Yankee "tariff of abominations." Advocates of nullification, refusal to enforce a federal law within a state's borders, took control of the South Carolina statehouse, a full on crisis was born. The biggest and most ardent supporter of this policy was Jackson's own Vice President, John C. Calhoun. South Carolina voted to nullify the federal law.
Jackson rejected South Carolina's claim. The supremacy clause of the Constitution prohibits nullification. Jackson prepared to raise an army, invade The Palmetto State, and personally hang the leaders of the movement. Such a threat is very real when it comes from a man who has killed men in duels and executed his own soldiers. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was orchestrated in Congress. The tariff was gradually lowered, Jackson didn't invade South Carolina, and Vice President Calhoun decided he would be better suited (and safer) in the U.S. Senate. To his supporters, Jackson was a strong Unionist. To his critics, President Jackson's heavy handedness seemed to resemble that of a king.
When Andrew Jackson learned of the decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, he supposedly said that John Marshal had made his decision, "now let him enforce it." Over time, some during the next President's term and in violation of the court's order, the Cherokee were rounded up at gun point, removed from their homes, and forced to march westward. This forced march of thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children, came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of people died, but in the mind of Jackson, and a great many Americans, it was progress. The forced removal of Native Americans not only had tragic consequences for the thousands of families displaced, but also for generations of slaves to come. By opening up the Deep South to white settlement, the cotton industry was able to spread into the fertile, profitable soil of Dixie. With one single act, Jackson and Congress further advanced America's two original sins: the eradication of Native American society and the institution of slavery.
There is no event that serves as a better example of Andrew Jackson's stubbornness, unwillingness to compromise, and the personal nature of his politics, than the Bank War. The Bank of the United States served as a stabilizing force in the American economy. By law, it is where federal deposits were kept. I could provide loans, issue bonds, and do all of the things that one might expect a bank to do. However, much of the interest in the bank was controlled by eastern elites. With branches in places like New York, the bank brought great financial power to the cities of east. In the early nineteenth century, proximity mattered. The further away a person, business, or government was from a power center (financial or otherwise) the less influence they had. The "common man" of the frontier who Jackson claimed to represent had little to say when it came to the nations finances. They also felt like they received little benefit from the Bank of the United States. To Jackson, the Bank represented what he called "corrupt privilege." Jackson's rhetoric against the Bank of the United States would be similar to modern day critiques of Wall Street, hedge fund managers, and lobbyist. The Banks wielded too much power and didn't serve the interests of the people.
That being said, it doesn't appear as if reforming the Bank was going to be a hallmark of Jackson's administration; he doesn't mention it in his first inaugural address. The bank had a 20 year charter, that wouldn't need to be renewed until 1836. As is customary throughout most of American history, Presidents and Congress do not go about the business of repealing the acts of previous administrations. If, in 1836, the Congress felt the Bank did not need to continue, they would allow it to expire. However, the existence of the Bank became to primary issue in the Election of 1832, four years before it needed to be discussed.
The newspaper that had published the damning story about Jackson's late wife in 1828 was run by a personal friend of Henry Clay. Jackson believed Clay was responsible for besmirching his wife's honor just before her death and he hated him for it. If Clay was for something, Jackson regardless of politics, was against it. Perhaps, the President did exactly what Clay wanted. Clay pushed the Bank recharter through Congress and the President vetoed it. Now Clay could use the rechartering of the Bank as his signature cause as he ran against Jackson in the Presidential election of 1832 under the banner of the National Republicans. Clay set a trap and Jackson took the bait. But the plan didn't work. Jackson destroyed Clay in the election and then set his sights on killing the Bank of the United States.
Early in Jackson's second term, while Congress was out of town, the President ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to withdraw all federal deposits from the Bank. The Secretary refused. That would be illegal. Jackson fired him. He then appointed Attorney General Roger Taney to lead the Treasury Department. Taney agreed to remove federal deposits and send them to state banks run by Jackson's political allies. When Congress returned to D.C. they censured Jackson and Taney was no longer allowed to stay at the Treasury Department. It didn't matter, the deed was done, and the Bank would soon be dead. For his loyalty, Jackson nominated Taney as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taney would serve on the Court for many years, issuing some of the most controversial and infamous rulings in American history regarding slavery. It is Taney that wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott case that ruled that African Americans were not people that had rights worthy of protection.
Hoping to stabilize the economy, Jackson issued the Specie Circular which required that the federal government would only accept payment in the form of money backed by gold or silver. Most people didn't have access to this and credit dried up. It is ironic that a man who hated the idea of paper money is now on the $20 bill. Shortly after Jackson left office, the Panic of 1837 hit. It was the greatest economic downturn in the nation's short history. It would be left to Jackson's former Vice President, Martin Van Buren to handle the crisis.
Andrew Jackson is a controversial figure to say the least. His policies were aimed at helping the "common man" but many times these came at a great cost to the nation. The Indian Removal Act is one of the great unpaid sins in American history, yet at the time few saw anything wrong with it. Jackson came into office beating the drum of limited government and yet he used the power of the presidency to issue a record number of vetos, break federal law, and ignore the orders of the Supreme Court. His presidency, unintentionally led to the expansion of slavery and a national economic crisis. But in his day, he was loved. Yes, he had his critics (the Whig Party was formed in opposition to his policies), but he was viewed a champion of the "common man" until his dying day. For generations, the negative impact of his decisions were viewed by the public as unfortunate side effects of progress. It is only with time that we have been able to gain a clearer view of the long term consequences of Jackson's presidency.
On the podcast "Presidential" historian John Meacham had this to say about how Andrew Jackson should be remembered. "His legacy has shifted through time. [...] As our awareness of the plight of Native Americans, and the experience of enslaved people grew, Jackson's historical stock fell. [..] While his views on those matters were on the extreme edge of the mainstream of his time, they were still within the mainstream. And his sins were the nation's sins. And so to condemn him without condemning the nation itself is sort of a cop out. We can't simply blame Andrew Jackson for Native American removal and the endurance of slavery. The nation was complicit in those tragedies as well."
It's been 180 years since Andrew Jackson left the White House and he is still being studied, discussed, debated, beloved, and vilified. I'm confident that 180 years from now, we will still be talking about Old Hickory. Perhaps that's because Americans, then and now, see something of themselves in Andrew Jackson. He overcame tremendous hardship to achieve something great. He was tough, firm, and uncompromising. He loved, served, and defended his country. But upon closer examination, Jackson reveals unfortunate characteristics that we'd rather not admit.
1968, is one of the worst years in American political history. The year began with the stunning Tet Offensive, which more than any other event, changed public opinion on the Vietnam War. Within weeks, President Lyndon B. Johnson took the extraordinary step of announcing that he would not seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The Democratic Party was divided between the Johnson wing of the party and the younger, anti-war wing of the party. In April, the nation was stunned when Martin Luther King Jr., the single most important civil rights leader in the country, was gunned down in Memphis, TN. Riots broke out throughout the nation. In June, Robert Kennedy, a symbol of hope and new leadership for America was murdered by an Iranian extremist while campaigning in Los Angeles. In July, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was overcome with riots and violence. A compromise candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president. A radical Independent candidate, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, the original #MAGA candidate, ran on a platform of "segregation forever!" Out of this chaos, America looked to a man they knew. A man with a long political career. A man who promised to have a "secret pan" to end the war in Vietnam. A man who promised to represent the "silent majority" of Americans and restore "law and order". The American people elected Richard Milhous Nixon.
To many Americans, Nixon is the standard of presidential failure. After all, the scandal that brought him down, Watergate, has become part of the American lexicon. However, the truth is that Richard Nixon has a long list of achievements as President of the United States. In fact, as far as a resume goes, Richard Nixon's credentials were pretty good leading into his election in 1968. Nixon served in the Navy during WWII and entered politics shortly thereafter. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Nixon gained national attention for his hard-line against supposed communist sympathizers within the government. In 1950, he was elected to the Senate were he was known for his conservative politics. Because he was young, conservative, and from the important state of California Nixon was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in 1952. Despite a few missteps (see "Checkers Speech"), Richard Nixon was elected Vice President of the United States under the extremely popular President Eisenhower. Nixon would serve as America's second in command for 8 years before running for President in 1960. In 1960, the somewhat awkward Nixon competed against the young, exciting, inspirational John F. Kennedy. Nixon lost in what would be the closest election in American history.
Following his defeat, Richard Nixon went home to California where he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor. Lashing out at the media for what he perceived as a liberal bias, Nixon famously told reporters "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Nixon's political career appeared to be over. The 1960s, in many ways, was an era of liberal change. Civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other liberal causes were championed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The Republicans had no answer. There flirt with the far-right in 1964 turned out to be a disaster when their candidate, Barry Goldwater, was defeated in a landslide. However, as the 60s neared an end, the war in Vietnam, the changing civil rights movement, the student movement, and a divided Democratic party gave Nixon the opportunity he needed to return. He was elected in 1968, marking one of the most unlikely political comebacks in American history.
As mentioned before, Richard Nixon had quite a few significant achievements as President. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Vietnam: Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. His plan for "peace with honor" worked....sort of. Yes, the United States was not successful in Vietnam. We lost. However, Nixon, through extensive bombing, Vietnamization, and a controversial (perhaps illegal) expansion of the war into neighboring counties did bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Nixon ended the draft and brought thousands of brave servicemen and women home from a place they probably shouldn't have been in the first place.
- Environment: Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA. Times have changed.
- Cold War: Nixon normalized relations with the People's Republic of China. Prior to 1972, the United States had virtually no relationship with communist China. The most ardent opponent of communism was now shaking the hand of Chairman Mao. Controversial in its day, the visit to China opened the door for more normal relations which eased tensions and have made the United States and China, despite our many differences, strong trading partners. What's more surprising than his visit to China, was Nixon's visit to Moscow. Relations with the Soviet Union improved under Nixon as he pursued a policy of detente. The easing of relations allowed for more diplomacy and ultimately a reduction in arms between the two superpowers.
With a list of accomplishments like these, it's hard to imagine how a man so successful could be remembered as a failure. The answer is character. Richard Nixon, though a cunning and crafty politician and diplomat, was not suited for the presidency. The President of the United States is not simply the CEO of the country. The President must be more. We don't elect presidents to run our country, we elect them to lead our country. Leadership is the fundamental element of a successful presidency. The bedrock of true leadership is character. Richard Nixon was not a leader and his personal demons ultimately sank his presidency.
Heading into the 1972 election, Nixon had every reason to feel optimistic. His approval rating was high, his agenda was being fulfilled, and the Democrats remained a party in search of an identity. But optimism was not a quality that Nixon had in abundance. The President had spent his whole life looking over his shoulder, paranoid as to who might try to bring him down. He lacked self-confidence, held grudges, and resented people who he thought portrayed him unfairly. He had few close friends, even those with who he spent the most time remarked how little they actually knew him. Over the course of his political career he had amassed a list of enemies. This "enemies list" was made up of journalist, politicians, public figures, and anyone else who Nixon was convinced was out to get him. Unless you're Arya Stark, an enemies list is not the sort of thing one should take pride in. As a result of his paranoia, and obsessed with rooting out supposed leakers within the White House, Nixon went so far as to wiretap the White House so that there would be recordings of his phone calls and private conversations in the Oval Office. It would be these tapes that would be his undoing.
If one examines the history of the Watergate scandal, you might be surprised that for months it was only covered on the back pages of America's newspapers. The scandal took months to gain the attention of most Americans. The extent to which Nixon was involved in the actual crime at the Watergate is still a matter of debate, however, how the President handled the crisis is crucial to understanding his undoing. As Congress, using their oversight authority, tried to discover the truth about the extent of the Watergate break in, testimony revealed the existence of Nixon's secret tapes. When Congress demanded that White House recordings be turned over to investigators, Nixon refused. It was executive privilege he claimed. When Special Counsel for Watergate Archibald Cox learned of the tapes, he subpoenaed the recordings. Nixon refused and ordered Cox to drop the subpoena. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire Cox. The AG refused and resigned. Nixon ordered the Deputy AG to fire Cox. He refused and resigned. Finally, Nixon ordered the Solicitor General to fire Cox. He did and Nixon was in trouble. You can't fire the person investigating you.
Over the course of the next few months, numerous Nixon associates were indicted for interfering with the investigation. Nixon eventually was forced by the Supreme Court to release tapes that proved his role in trying to cover up the break in and obstruct the investigation. As the weeks passed and more associates were facing jail time, it became evident to Republican members of Congress that Nixon was a liability for their party in the 1974 midterm elections. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, future President George Bush, asked Nixon to resign. Meanwhile, Congress drew up articles of impeachment. Before Congress could vote to impeach the President, Nixon resigned, becoming the only President to do so.
Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as a symbol of presidential corruption, scandal, and failure. This is truly unfortunate because it overshadows his very real achievements as President of the United States. Nixon's story serves to remind us, yet again, that the Presidency requires more than political success. It requires more than business acumen or intelligence. The Presidency requires wisdom, character, and humility. In short, the Presidency requires leadership. Richard Nixon for all of his political gifts, was no leader.
First, let's talk about why there was a congressional election in the middle of June. When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency in November, he began to fill his administration with Republicans with experience in Washington. A number of his cabinet members were members of the House of Representatives. Like any president, Trump nominated individuals to his cabinet that were from safe Republican districts. His administration knew that the vacancies that were created would, in all likelihood, be filled by Republicans in special elections. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney was easily replaced by a Republican in South Carolina. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was a Congressman from Montana before his appointment. Montana was so solidly red that the Republican candidate to fill Zinke's vacant seat was charged with assaulting a reporter the day before the election and still won! Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was chosen as the Attorney General. Being a senator, his seat was filled temporarily by an appointee of the Governor of Alabama. Of course, the Governor of Alabama is, you guessed it, a Republican. Finally, there is Tom Price, Trump's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Prior to his new role he represented Georgia's 6th Congressional District. Like all of the others, Price was chosen in part, because his seat in the House was considered very safe for Republicans. How safe? The seat has been held by Republicans since the 1970s. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the district in decades, And Tom Price won reelection in 2016 by more than 30 points.
So why the uproar about the 6th? Probably because, though solidly Republican, Donald Trump only carried the district by 1% point over Clinton. By virtue of being a suburb of Atlanta, with highly educated voters, the Democrats knew that these Republicans would be less friendly to Trump, than the rest of the #MAGA crowd. Finally, their candidate, Jon Ossoff, was young (only 30) and a political outsider. The Democrats felt that if they went into a Republican stronghold and stole a seat from the GOP, it would be a referendum on Trump. They failed. Ossoff ran on anti-trump platform against a traditional Republican. Traditional Republican voters might not like Trump, but they do like traditional Republicans. It was a terrible uphill battle from the start. It should be no surprise that Ossoff lost. Progressives around the country felt devastated when Ossoff lost and Trump felt the need to brag about the GOP victory in a rally. Both sides are overstating this race. In the long term, it means very little.
First of all, if Ossoff had won, he would have served roughly 18 months until the November 2018 election in which he, most likely, would have been defeated by a Republican. Things would have returned to normal. The district is red remember. Furthermore, Trump shouldn't feel over confident. The GOP had to spend millions and millions of dollars to defeat a political upstart who didn't even live in the district, in order to win a special election that shouldn't have been close. Both sides can learn something from the race, but by 2018 it will be all but forgotten.
The Democrats have reason to be optimistic about the 2018 midterm elections. For starters, historically the party out of power always picks up seats in the midterm election. The Democrats may not take the House, but they will certainly narrow the gap. The same will probably be true for the Senate. Why? Right now, there are plenty of moderate Congressional districts, with GOP Congressmen, that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. These Republicans, particularly those in places like California and New York, are going to no doubt suffer from the Trump factor. Considering the fact that the President's approval rating is nearing historically low levels, there is reason to believe that the GOP will have to do the same thing they did in the Georgia 6th, spend millions of dollars to protect safe seats. This means they are unlikely to divert resources to vulnerable seats throughout the country. It is 2018 that matters, not 2017. There are 20 or more seats, with far more moderate voters than the Georgia 6th, that should be the focus of the progressive movement. The seats that were open in 2017 were open for a reason, they were considered safe, and the GOP had to fight to protect them. They were successful, but the Democrats should feel good as well.
Of course, good feelings don't win elections. Yes, the base is energized and yes, Donald Trump is very unpopular. However, Democrats can not run on a platform that is nothing more than anti-Trump. Democratic candidates must put forward and actually agenda. Arguably, the reason Trump won the White House is because the Clinton campaign spent too much time focusing on what a horrible person Trump is rather than focusing on a clear economic message that would impact voters' lives. Whoever Democrats nominate for the nearly 5 congressional seats 450+ congressional seats that are up for election in 2018, they'd better have something better than "vote for me because the other side is worse."
Finally, one of the great mistakes of political observers is an over emphasis on the federal government at the expense of the state governments. American's lives are far more impact by the laws passed in state capitols than they are what happens in Washington D.C. However, most of us can't even name our state representative or senator. A shocking number of Americans don't even know the name of their state's governor. What's worse, hundreds of state and local (and many Congressional) races are unopposed in any given election year. This means, incumbent candidates win by default. In 2016, three of my local representatives, all Republicans, ran unopposed. What the Republican party has done a fantastic job of over the past 8 years is focusing on local and state politics. In doing so, they have won control of 32 state legislatures and have elected 33 governors. As a result, they have been able to pass conservative agendas. They have passed voter ID laws, gerrymandered districts, dismantled medicaid expansion, rolled back regulations, and appointed state judges. Whether or not you agree with their politics, their emphasis on state government should be applauded. In America, all politics is local. If progressives really want to limit the power of the Trump administration, the first line of defense is the state capitol. If you're living in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, California, or anywhere in between, you'd be far better served to donate money, knock on doors, and support candidates for local and state offices than you are chipping in $5 in hopes of winning a symbolic victory in Georgia.
As a progressive, I'm disappointed that Ossoff didn't win. Just as I'm disappointed Democrats didn't win any of the other special elections. However, it is important to step back and take a look at the whole picture. Political change is not brought about by winning single, random elections, but rather by years of harnessing momentum and winning when and where it matters. It will matter in 2018, it will matter 2020, and it will certainly matter when it comes time to vote for your state's legislative and executive offices. In the next year, I for one, need to follow my own advice and get active.
When Vice President Calvin Coolidge learned of President Harding's death in 1923, he was with his family in rural Vermont. Despite the fact that it was late at night, a small crowd of reporters, surrounded the farm house. Coolidge's father, a justice of the peace, dutifully grabbed a Bible and administered the oath of office to his son by candlelight. With that, Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.
Most Americans don't know much about the man known as "Silent Cal", and that would probably be OK with the former President. Coolidge was a man of very few words who never sought the spotlight. Known for his short speeches and dry wit, I doubt the humble Coolidge would succeed, or have an interest in, modern day politics. Grandstanding, stump speeches, and rallies were not his style. However, in his time, Coolidge appeared to be just the kind of president Americans wanted. He was hands-off, fiscally conservative, and in the background. In short, Coolidge allowed the Roaring 20s, to roar. That's probably why he is so far down on this list.
It is for his policy of low taxes, free enterprise, and quasi-isolationism that Coolidge is remembered. That being said, when you're goal is to get the government to do as little as possible, there is very little to be remembered for. Coolidge lowered taxes multiple times during his 6 years in office. By the end, less than 5% of Americans actually paid taxes. Coolidge's proposals were known as "scientific taxation" which is basically the idea behind supply-side economics; low taxes on the wealthiest Americans will lead to more spending, jobs, and ultimately more revenue. To his credit, Coolidge understood that if taxes were lowered, spending needed to be cut. By doing so, he was able to pay off a sizable portion of the federal debt. However, this inactive government that is praised by many conservatives also turned a blind eye to the suffering of thousands. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927 it caused destruction and suffering on a scale rarely seen in American history. When Congress began to craft legislation to aid in the recovery, Coolidge resisted. In his mind, such social welfare would be inappropriate. No doubt, he sympathized with those who had lost their homes, and perhaps even loved ones, but bad things happen and they shouldn't look to the government for help. Although he did sign an aid bill passed by Congress, it was not without a heavy dose of regret.
More noteworthy was Coolidge's veto of an agricultural bill designed to help the nation's farmers. The Great Depression, in many ways started years earlier for farmers. A devastating combination of over production (thanks to mechanization) and plummeting prices (thanks to a decrease in demand) caused terrible economic hardship for farmers throughout the 1920s. On two occasions, Coolidge vetoed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill. The bill would have provided subsides to farmers, bought up excess crops, and attempted to sell them overseas if possible. The hope was the agricultural prices would recover, farmers could make a profit, and food would be on grocery shelves across the nation. To Coolidge though, this was an improper use of tax payer dollars. The bill died twice on the executive's desk and farmers continued to suffer. By the end of the decade, so would everyone else.
Calvin Coolidge was a man for his time. The American people wanted an inactive government and his administration gave them one. The American people wanted to retreat from the world stage. Coolidge did his part to make that a reality by signing strong immigration restrictions and endorsing the infamous Kellog-Briand pact which "outlawed war." If the job of a president is to give the people what they want, I suppose Coolidge did a good job. Unfortunately, the booming economy at home and the peace abroad was built upon a house of cards waiting to fall. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know what happened soon after Coolidge left office. The house of cards collapsed.
Throughout the country the seeds of the Depression were being sown. Zero regulation of the stock market led to speculation, buying stock on margin, and inflated prices. The gap between the rich and the poor was growing each year leaving far too many Americans with far too little purchasing power to keep the economy afloat. Zero regulations on banks meant that banks could make incredibly unwise loans to costumers unable to pay them back. Nor were banks required to keep deposit reserves, meaning a run on a bank could kill even a healthy financial institution. Americans were buying new consumer goods like radios and cars, but they were doing so using credit. The average American's household consumer debt was far higher than previous generations. An unstable international finance system gave the illusion of success, but really was propping up failing economies throughout Europe. The suffering of millions in Europe was leading to an increase in nationalism, imperialism, and fascism, while the feckless League of Nations (which the US did not join) sat ideally by doing nothing. Shortly after Coolidge left office all of these problems manifested themselves.
The former President does not deserve blame for the crisis that happened during after his administration, Rather, the overwhelming opinion of most politicians, business leaders, and every day Americans helped to, unknowingly, create fertile ground for economic disaster. It is only through the benefit of hindsight and the lens of history, that we now see the underlying problems during the 1920s. I don't blame Coolidge, or his advisers, for not recognizing them, but the fact remains that they existed during his silent watch.
In my classroom I have a large poster featuring the timeline of the American presidency. A former student once visited my room and began examining the poster. "Mr. Ashcraft" the student said. "I was in APUSH for an entire year, and I passed the test, and I didn't know we had a president named Benjamin Harrison." While this isn't exactly the sort of thing a history teacher likes to hear, I wasn't entirely surprised. Harrison is little more than a footnote in American history. Textbooks hardly mention his name. He is overshadowed by his predecessor/successor Grover Cleveland (the only person to win two nonconsecutive terms) and by his more famous grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who died one month into office. Harrison had an unremarkable presidency and accomplished very little. However, a upon closer examination, Benjamin Harrison had ideas and supported policies that, had he lived in a later era, perhaps would have made him a president of real consequence. Today, we'll examine how Harrison laid a foundation which future presidents would build upon.
Benjamin Harrison was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1889, just a few weeks short of the 100th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. To many observers, the juxtaposition of the god-like Washington and the short, unimposing, unremarkable Harrison made a statement about the changing nature of our political leaders in a mere 100 years. How far had we fallen? The shadow of Washington, along with Harrison's rather short stature (5'6") made it easy to lampoon the new President. Many political cartoons of the day portray a small Harrison being dwarfed by a large hat, not unlike the one his grandfather would wear. To his critics, he didn't seem up to the job; sure to be overwhelmed. It didn't help that Harrison, like several others, was elected President without the consent of the governed. That is to say, he lost the popular vote to President Cleveland, but eked out a narrow win in the Electoral College.
Because this was an era of weak presidents and a strong Congress, Harrison mostly called upon Congress to take action to ensure civil rights protection for blacks. He did order his Justice Department to prosecute violations of the Fifteenth Amendment which prevented discrimination on the basis of race in elections, but the impact was limited. He called upon Congress multiple times to pass legislation which would empower the federal government to take action to protect African American's access to the ballot. He questioned the mantra of states rights as a euphemism for voter suppression. Though Harrison was ultimately unsuccessful in these matters, his support for an more active role in civil rights protection is certainly noteworthy.
In the area of conservation, Harrison supported legislation that would empower future progressive presidents to do much to protect the environment. Working with Congress, Harrison set aside more than 20 million acres of forest for preservation during his term. He also actively became involved in an effort to prevent the eradication of a species; the fur seal. The open water fishing of seals for their pelts was big business in the late 1800s. While the seals primary lived and bred on in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the open sea was where they spent much of their time. This is also where they could be killed in tremendous numbers by various international vessels, most importantly the British. Harrison's navy intercepted Canadian vessels and entered into negotiations to changing fishing rights, and therefore protect the seals, with the British. Negotiations that eventually proved to be successful. Benjamin Harrison is not a man well-known for his conservation efforts, but the work his administration did was fairly forward thinking given the era.
Finally, Harrison made his mark on the economy as well. Though certainly economically conservative, Harrison made it known early in his administration that he was troubled by the concentration and abused of power in the hands a small number of industrialists. His administration supported the groundbreaking Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This act made monopolies (aka trusts) illegal. During the Harrison administration, and the next two that followed, the act was rarely enforced. However, this act would prove critical for future President Theodore Roosevelt who took action on behalf of working Americans earning him the (overstated) nickname "Trust Buster."
That being said, it was also the economy that helped bring Harrison's administration to an end. The economy began to flounder during the second half of his term. A budget surplus from the Cleveland years had evaporated. High tariffs, supported by Harrison, were blamed for a growing recession throughout 1892, eventually leading to the Panic of 1893.
Underwhelmed by his performance, Benjamin Harrison did not have strong support from his own party in 1892. The Democrats renominated former President Grover Cleveland as their candidate. After all, Cleveland had won the popular vote 4 years earlier. As election day neared, Harrison suffered a personal tragedy when his wife became ill and died just weeks before the election. Cleveland won the election comfortably.
After leaving office, Benjamin Harrison became a education advocate, author, and even an international lawyer. He remarried and lived an active life until his death in 1901. Well-liked and fondly remembered in his home state of Indiana, Benjamin Harrison is largely a forgotten figure in American history. His temperament and administrative style were well-suited for his era, but his personal opinions and quiet advocacy were, in many way, well ahead of his time.
Today's story is sad. It's the story about a mentally unwell man having easy access to a firearm and using to do harm. It is a story about advances in science and the willing denial of scientific research. It is the sad story of the death of President James Abram Garfield.
If you've read my earlier blog entry about Chester A. Arthur (if you haven't I'm insulted), you know that James Garfield's nomination and eventual election represented a compromise within a divided Republican Party. Two wings of the party, the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, represented to different view points in regarding political appointments. The traditional, Stalwart point of view was that government jobs should be given to party loyalist and those that supported victorious campaigns with money and influence. This traditional way of doing things was known as the Spoils System. The Half-Breeds, accurately believed that such political patronage led to corruption and inefficiency. Garfield, like other Half-Breeds, advocated for civil service reform believing that political jobs should be given out on the basis of merit. A radical idea to be sure. At the Republican convention of 1880, the two sides were bitterly divided as to who should be the party standard bearer. Garfield, a nine term Congressman from Ohio, was chosen, in part, because he was well respected by both factions. As a consolation, Chester A. Arthur, a product of the Spoils System and a die hard Stalwart, was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate. This convention is also noteworthy because it is first time in history that a person sought a third term as President. Former President Ulysses S. Grant tried to secure the nomination but was defeated by Garfield.
There is a great deal to like about James Garfield. Everything he achieved in life was due to a tireless work ethic and intellect. Garfield came from a humble background and had to work his way through college. This included working as a teacher, a career he continued after graduating. Garfield was officially a lawyer by trade, but also worked as a minister, making him the only preacher to be elected to the Presidency. During the Civil War, Garfield left his job in the Ohio legislature to join the Union army. Despite no previous military training, Garfield quickly moved up the ranks eventually being promoted to Major General. Garfield, obviously, was against slavery and became an advocate for legal protection for freedmen after the war. During the postwar years, Garfield was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he was a chairmen of numerous committees. His election to the nation's highest office makes him the only sitting member of the House to move from the capitol to the White House. Given his track record, there is reason to believe that James A. Garfield could have very well had a successful presidency. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to make much of an impact.
One person who supported James Garfield in 1880 was Charles Guiteau. Guiteau has been recorded in history books as a disgruntled office seeker. But in reality, Guiteau was much more than a person with a grudge, he was a troubled man who most likely suffered from some kind of mental illness. Throughout his entire life, Guiteau struggled to hold down job, develop close relationships, and generally fit in. He decided to take an unconventional path. As a young man, Guiteau joined the controversial Oneida Community. Oneida was one of a handful of so called Utopian societies that were popular in the mid 1800s. The extreme religious sect sought to create a perfect, sinless community, focused on manual labor, communal property, and "complex marriage." Even within this fringe community, Guiteau was considered too odd to fit in. It seems to be the issue of complex marriage that ultimately caused Guiteau to leave Oneida; not because he disagreed with it, but rather because he wasn't allowed to participate. Complex marriage meant that all adults in Oneida were married to all other adults. As I explain to my students, "In Oneida, men and women would go on 'dates' with whomever they wished, whenever they wished. We know that despite asking lots of girls to go on a 'date', no one would ever agree to go out with Guiteau. Even within a community with such low standards and odd view points, Charles Guiteau was considered too much of an odd ball."
After leaving Oneida, Guiteau tried his hands at a variety of trades, failing at all of them. He declared himself a lawyer (a profession not well regulated at the time), argued one case and lost miserably. We know that he must have had many troublesome personality traits because there were multiple people in his life that tried to have him institutionalized. Nevertheless, Guiteau eventually took an interest in politics and threw his support to Garfield. Despite not having any official role in the campaign, Guiteau wrote pamphlets supporting Garfield and once gave a speech, attended by virtually no one, advocating for the Republican ticket. The closest he ever got to being involved with the campaign was he once shook the Garfield's hand in passing. When the Republicans were victorious, Guiteau believed his support had been crucial and looked forward to being rewarded with a political appointment. After all, he was a Stalwart.
Obviously, Guiteau was not qualified for such a job and never stood a chance of getting one. However, within his troubled mind he clearly believed he deserved one. After months of harassing cabinet members, writing numerous confusing letters, and trying to get close to the President, Guiteau was finally told, under no uncertain terms, that he would not be getting an appointment. It is at this time, that he decided to kill the President. Guiteau, went to a local gun dealer and purchased a revolver. He is said to have purchased the more expensive model with the ivory handle because he thought it would look better in a museum. Obviously, there were no restrictions on gun sales or ownership in 1881. Then again, a person such as Guiteau probably would have very little trouble purchasing a firearm in 2017 either. After weeks of target practice, Guiteau began to stalk the President at public appearances. In July of 1881, Guiteau put on a suit, had his shoes polished, and went to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. When he saw President Garfield walking through the lobby, Guiteau calmly walked up and shot Garfield twice in the back. As he was being arrested, he famously proclaimed, "I am Stalwart [..] Arthur is president now!"
Guiteau was taken to jail to await trial. While in jail, he did a lot of writing including letters to President Arthur, assuming he would be pardoned. When his case went to trial, his defense argued that he was insane, but the judge wouldn't accepted it. It appears that Guiteau was convinced that he had done nothing wrong, that he would be acquitted and made plans to embark on a speaking tour once freed. After all, Guiteau was acutely aware of the fact that he was a celebrity now. Guiteau's story ended with a hangman's noose.
Many modern day doctor's who have examined Garfield's case argue that the President's wounds were not mortal. Some argue that because the bullet missed vital organs, the President could have recovered with minimal medical intervention and lived a full life with the bullet still lodged in his body. Although such view points are not universal, the majority of doctors believe that Guiteau's bullet was not the true cause of President Garfield's death. So why then did President Garfield, suffering from serious but perhaps non-life-threatening injuries die 2 months after being shot? The answer is most likely poor medical care. Groundbreaking scientific research had led to the discovery of germs a few decades earlier. Although microorganisms were not well understood, many in the medical field had begun to advocate for the sterilization of medical equipment when treating wounds as a means of preventing infection. Though the ideas had been around for a number of years, there were many who rejected the science. One such science denier was the chief physician tasked with treating President Garfield, Dr. Willard Bliss.
Bliss rejected the idea of microorganisms. He once argued in a paper that the things we can't see can't possibly make us ill. Almost immediately after Garfield was shot, Bliss and other doctors began sticking their unwashed hands into the wound searching, unsuccessfully, for the bullet. Most doctors at the time believed retrieving the bullet was essential to recovery. Once the President was stabilized, he was moved to the White House to recuperate. Nearly every day for weeks, Dr. Bliss and others would probe Garfield's wound still hoping to locate the elusive bullet; they never found it. At one point, Bliss enlisted the services of Alexander Graham Bell, who used an early version of a metal detector to find the bullet. Bell failed. In the first few days after the attack, the prognosis was positive for the President. He was in good spirits and even wrote family members reassuring them that he would soon be back to his old self. However, as the weeks passed, Garfield's condition worsened. His wound, never properly cared for began to show signs of infection. He began losing strength daily and was in terrible pain. Garfield developed a very high fever, caused by the terrible infection, most likely the result of unsanitary medical care. In addition, their are reports that Bliss refused to allow Garfield to eat much of anything save a small amount of oatmeal. As summer began to draw to a close, Garfield had lost an incredible amount of weight and his condition was dire. The President was moved from the White House to New Jersey to be with his family. There, on September 19, 1881, James Garfield died.
There are many lessons to be learned from Garfield's assassination. Even today, just as in 1881, when there is a tragedy, we ask "what could have been done to prevent this?" Charles Guiteau needed medical treatment; very little was available at the time. Guiteau should not have been allowed to purchase a weapon. But in 1881, the idea of background checks, or any form of gun control, was impossible. Garfield's doctors should have relied on the most advanced scientific research, instead they trusted traditional means of treatment. Garfield's death was the result of a series of unfortunate events, that have a great deal to teach us. It is important that we take the lessons to heart.
Evaluating President Garfield's time in office is difficult because he had so little time to accomplish anything. His presidency last just over 6 months, the second shortest in history. Not much time to leave an impression. However, for his vocal support of civil rights and education reform, along with his attempt at cleaning up political corruption, Garfield deserves some credit. As a result of his Garfield's death, Congress summoned the courage to pass the Pendleton Act which was the first meaningful civil service reform act of the nineteenth century. The anti-corruption legislation, though modest, no doubt would have won Garfield's approval.