Fun fact: Two of John Tyler's grandsons is still alive! That's right, there is no "great" in front of grandson. Although I'm sure they're both great guys, these two men would have called the 11th President "grandpa." How is it possible that a person living in 2017 can be the grandson of a man whose presidency began in 1841? I would encourage you to read this article or listen to the outstanding Presidential podcast by the Washington Post (embedded below).
Fun fact #2: John Tyler's plantation is named Sherwood Forest and is supposedly haunted by a strange woman whose face permanently appears on one of the building's walls!
Historical fact: John Tyler is a very important President. John Tyler isn't well-known or fondly remembered, but he set a very important precedent. John Tyler is the first Vice President to become the Commander-in-Chief due to a President's death.
If a person knows anything about John Tyler it's probably the campaign slogan that featured his name in 1840: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Tippecanoe was the nickname of the Whig's presidential nominee William Henry Harrison, we'll discuss him more next week. Had it not been for Harrison's untimely death, John Tyler most likely would have faded into obscurity like most nineteenth century Vice Presidents. However, history had different plans.
Here's the thing, the Constitution, as originally written, wasn't entirely clear on what exactly would happen in the event of a presidential vacancy. The powers of the presidency would be given to the Vice President, but it didn't exactly say that the VP would become the new President. Many in Washington felt that Tyler would be an acting or interim presidential until a new election could be held. This was the view held by many in President Harrison's cabinet. John Tyler disagreed, he interpreted the text to mean that he was in fact the new President, took an oath of office, and got to work.
So, if Tyler is so important, why do I rank him so low? That's because he holds yet another important distinction. John Tyler is the only President to be kicked out of his own political party. In the 1840s, the Whigs were a relatively new political party that lacked a central set of guiding principles. The only thing that united the early Whigs, was opposition to former President Andrew Jackson. The heavy handed, at times authoritarian, leadership style of Jackson led those in Congress who resented him to form a new political party. They chose the name "Whigs" as a tribute to the faction in the British Parliament that hoped to limit the power of the British monarchy. So the Whigs set about the work of limiting the power of a man they dubbed "King Andrew I."
John Tyler was a Democrat, the same party as Jackson. However, he too opposed Jackson's tactics and joined the Whigs solely on the basis of that opposition. Tyler was chosen as Harrison's running mate in 1840 to broaden the appeal of the ticket. On policy, however, Tyler opposed many of the big government aspects of the Whig platform such as rechartering the Bank of the United States (which Jackson had destroyed), raising the tariff, and federal spending on internal improvements like roads and canals.
When Tyler took the oath of office, he immediately told his cabinet (which was really Harrison's cabinet) that he planned on pursuing his own agenda, which didn't line up with Harrison's campaign promises. The cabinet could either work with him or resign. Several chose the latter.
Over the course of the next four years, Tyler was a torn in the side of the Whigs. If he were around today, he would probably be called a W.I.N.O, Whig In Name Only. As time passed, vetos were issued and frustration in Congress mounted, the exasperated Whigs voted to kick Tyler out of their party. Thus making Tyler the closest thing our country has ever had to a truly independent President. There was talk of an impeachment on purely political charges, but thankfully it never materialized.
John Tyler faithfully served out the remainder of what would have been Harrison's term before leaving office. It must have been fairly lonely around the Executive Mansion. Congress didn't like him and his cabinet didn't trust him. He didn't even have a Vice President to rely upon because, after taking over as President, Tyler served his whole term without one. Another precedent.
The precedent setting Tyler is mostly forgotten by most Americans. His lack of political administrative skills lead most historians to consider his presidency a bit of a failure. However, his time as Chief Executive is not inconsequential. The precedent of assuming the office and serving as a legitimate President after the death of Harrison would set an example for all future VPs to follow. In fact, it wouldn't be until Lyndon Johnson's administration following the death of JFK that the Constitution would be amended to state that the Vice President does, in fact, become the President in case of a vacancy. The same amendment also provides the framework for replacing the Vice President in the event of a vacancy. This solved yet another constitutional problem highlighted by John Tyler's presidency.
While he may not have been a good President and he certainly wasn't a successful one, John Tyler's time in office can be used to teach us important lessons. For all the brilliance and wisdom demonstrated by the Framers in drafting the U.S. Constitution, the document wasn't exactly complete or perfect. Questions about presidential succession, transtions of power, and the true purpose of the Vice President were brought to light by John Tyler. His ascension to the nation's highest office and the chaos it created forced future generations to reexamine our government's founding document and fill in the holes, thereby strengthening it. In that regard, I suppose, we should be grateful.
I'm typing today's entry on the same day that FBI Director James Comey confirmed, under oath, that the Bureau is in the midst of an investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The Director confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. What the FBI is trying to determine is whether or not connections between Trump campaign and Russia were benign or if there was collusion. Suddenly, the many scandals of the Harding administration don't look so bad.
Warren Harding has long had a place near the bottom of presidential rankings. The well-liked former newspaper man was popular in his day. A Senator from the all important state of Ohio, Harding came to office pledging a "return to normalcy." After 20 years of groundbreaking progressive reform, international intervention, and a War to End All Wars. Americans were in a conservative mood and Harding seemed to be the man for time. The Roaring 20s were a time of corporate greed and bootleg liquor. The decade saw the revitalization of the KKK, harsh anti-immigrant policies, and the United States willingly stepping aside, abandoning its place as a world leader. Come to think of it, perhaps President Harding would have fit in rather well in our time? As it turns out, Warren Harding was indeed a man for the 1920s, and that was part of his problem.
Despite the recent passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited to manufacture and sale of alcohol, Harding made sure that his White House would be a place where intoxicants would remain on the menu. In addition to drinking, Harding regularly hosted gambling parties at the executive mansion, famously losing a set of White House china in a game of poker. Perhaps such behavior seems below someone holding the office of President of the United States, however Harding was simply playing the same political games that had won his support early in his career. During the early twentieth century, a great many political deals were brokered in smoke-filled rooms by ambitious white men with scotch in hand; why change one's behavior when in the White House?
Unfortunately, as suited as Warren Harding may have been at playing the games necessary to broker deals, win support, and elections, he proved to be wholly unsuited for the most important quality needed to be a successful President: leadership. Leadership requires far more than deal making and business acumen, it requires character. In this field, Harding struggled. Warren Harding has recently made news because his infamous, long rumored, womanizing was proven to be true. In recent years, a series of love letters between the former president and one of his (several) mistresses was made public. Late night comics had a field day with Harding's letters. The 29th President's writing style was less Romeo and Juliet and more Fifty Shades of Grey.
President Harding's personal indulgences aside, issues of far more consequence have forever tarnished his short presidency. Just over two years into his term, President Harding embarked on a cross country speaking tour. While on the West Coast, Harding became ill and was rushed to a San Francisco hotel to recuperate. A few days into his stay, suffering from various ailments, Harding suffered a fatal heart attack. The popular President was widely mourned and the nation was genuinely shocked. However, the period of mourning would quickly pass as the public became aware of several earth-shattering political scandals and news of Harding's affairs surfaced.
Two scandals that occurred on Harding's watch were two of the biggest in the history of the United States. The first involved the director of Veteran's Bureau, Charles R. Forbes, who defrauded the federal government out of tens of thousands of dollars meant earmarked for providing care for WWI veterans. Forbes was sent to federal prison for his role in the scandal. The scandal known as Teapot Dome was Watergate long before Watergate. The Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall illegally leased naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, WY to two oil companies. In exchange for allowing the oil companies access to the reserves, Fall accepted a bribe of roughly $400,000. Albert Fall became the first cabinet member to be sent to prison for crimes committed in while in office.
There is no evidence that Harding personally had knowledge or profited from any of the scandals that ruined his reputation. Warren Harding surrounded himself with notorious men of dubious intentions. When it comes to the presidency, ignorance is rarely an excuse. Harding's lack of character and poor judgement created an environment when high ranking members of the administration felt that they could get away with unethical and illegal activities. Considering two of these activities involved disrespecting veterans and putting our nation's security at risk in order to make a profit, the nation's disgust is understandable. These scandals, coupled with economic and foreign policies that would prove to be disastrous within the next decade, doomed Harding's presidency.
Had Harding lived, perhaps he could have weathered the political storms that sunk his presidency postmortem. Sadly, there would be no explanation, there would be no attempt to make a amends, and hold his associates accountable for their crimes. For the sins of his associates, Warren Harding's presidency will be forever be considered a failure. Harding was President during a period when the nation experienced, what would prove to be, the second biggest political scandal in history...at least, for now.
When it comes to forgotten presidents, Millard Fillmore's name is always in the discussion. Well, after you do a quick Google search and realize there was in fact a President named Millard Fillmore; then his name enters the discussion. If people remember Fillmore at all it is because of his unique name and little else. There aren't many Millards around any longer. Perhaps modern students of history will recognize Fillmore as the guy that social media always reminds us bares a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. However, even if you've heard his name, it's probably safe to assume that most Americans know very little about our 13th President. I'll make this short: there's not much to say.
If ever someone wanted to make the argument that, in America, anyone can become President regardless of their upbringing, they needn't look further than Millard Fillmore. Like Lincoln, Fillmore was born in a log cabin and raised in poverty. Nearly everything the man achieved was accomplished as a result of work ethic and intelligence. An experienced and successful politician from the important state of New York, Fillmore was chosen by the Whig Party as the running mate of Zachary Taylor in the election of 1848.
Zachary Taylor didn't last long in the presidency dying less than 2 years into his term (we'll talk more about that later) allowing Millard Fillmore to ascend the presidency. When Taylor died, Fillmore inherited a political mess threatening to tear the country apart. A few years earlier, the United States acquired much of modern day New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California as a result of the Mexican American War. Whether this newly acquired territory would be free or slave was unclear. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, thousands of fortune seeking prospectors headed to the west coast in hopes of striking it rich. The rapidly growing population and need for law and order led California to apply for rapid admission into the Union as a state...free of slaves.
As was typical of the day, Northern and Southern members of Congress viciously debated the issue of slavery in regards to the new territory. Southerners knew that if California was admitted to the Union as a free state, the balance of power in Congress would permanently tip in favor of Northern non-slaving holding states. As a result, they attempted to block California statehood unless significant pro-slavery concessions were made. The result was the infamous Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise was a bundle of bills that instituted a wide array of measures to maintain peace, at any cost, within the Union. In addition to the admission of California as a free state, the compromise settled boundary disputes between New Mexico territory and Texas, allowed for the potential spread of slavery to New Mexico and Utah, banned the slave trade (but not slavery in Washington D.C.), and most notoriously enacted the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act is one of the more horrifying laws ever to be enacted in the history of the United States. Under the new law, slave catchers from the South were allowed to enter northern states in search of runaway slaves. With little more than an accusation, and no evidence needed, black men and women, regardless of whether or not the person was in fact an escaped slave, could be arrested. Northern states were forbidden from enforcing their own personal liberty laws that protected fugitive slaves. Captured individuals would be taken before a judge, without the luxury of a lawyer or jury, who would decide their fate. If a judge declared a person free they were paid substantially less than if they ordered them into slavery.
So what does this have to do with Millard Fillmore? Everything. While presiding over the Senate as Vice President, Fillmore announced that he would be willing to cast a tie-breaking vote to support any compromise that settled the California question. That compromise became the Compromise of 1850 when he became President. Fillmore it seems, only viewed the question of slavery as a political one, divorced from the immorality of the practice. Sadly, this was an all too common view in the mid nineteenth century. Turning a blind-eye to the suffering of millions in bondage and failing to realize the turmoil and heartache that would be caused by ripping families apart in northern cities, Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act and vigorously enforced it. Perhaps the most infamous piece of legislation in American history bears Fillmore's signature and with it forever cements Millard Fillmore well within the bloody legacy of slavery in America.
As the newly elected 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, traveled by train throughout New England before his inauguration, he was joined by his wife and young son, Benny. The young family was no doubt eagerly awaiting the new adventure that awaited them as the new First Family. However, somewhere along the route, the train derailed and careened off the track. Pierce and his wife Jane were uninjured, however Benny was killed in front of their eyes. The boy's body was found beneath the wreckage of the passenger car, nearly decapitated. This tragedy clouded the optimism of the Pierce administration and in all likelihood, understandably hampered Pierce's ability to lead.
I can't imagine how Franklin Pierce must have felt when he placed his hand on a law book (choosing to forgo the Bible) to take the oath of office. While society was much different in 1853, I doubt anyone would have thought less of Pierce had the grieving father chosen to step aside. Nevertheless, Pierce persisted and set about the work of presiding over a nation rapidly drifting toward disunion.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, trying to unseat President Jimmy Carter, famously asked the American people "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" While there may have been some room for debate at the end of Carter's administration, there would have been little doubt had the question been posed at the end of Pierce's four years in office. In nearly every way, the country was worse off in at the end of his term than it was when Pierce took office. The question then is "Why?"
The answer of course is slavery. Like an ever spreading malignant cancer, slavery had infected new portions of the expanding United States. Thanks to a Fugitive Slave Law passed before Pierce came to office, slave catchers could raid northern cities looking for runaway slaves. Without the luxury of a defense or a fair trial, African Americans could be returned to slavery by order of a federal judge. It should be noted that federal judges received twice the pay for declaring an African American a runaway slave as they would have for pronouncing them free. As a result, many free blacks, born in the North, were rounded up an set South to be sold to the highest bidder. Pierce, as Chief Executive, vigorously enforced this abominable law.
The power brokers of the South had an almost religious commitment to the expansion of slavery. When the Missouri Compromise had put a northern border on the spread of slavery in 1820, southern expansionist began to look south for new territory to exploit for personal wealth and power at the expense of bondsmen. The valuable Spanish colony of Cuba, long desired by southern politicians, had a well-established plantation slavery system. Franklin Pierce supported a plan to purchase Cuba from Spain, and with it add thousands of enslaved people and untold wealth to the planter aristocracy. Though the plan was never realized, the Northerner Pierce demonstrated his willingness to kowtow to the demands of the slave powers.
However, it was Pierce's support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that probably did more to divide the country than anything else. The Missouri Compromise prevented spread of slavery to any unorganized territory north of the southern border of Missouri. This tenuous arrangement worked well enough for a few decades, until powerful politicians saw an opportunity for profit. When the discussion of a transcontinental railroad arrived in Washington, the greatest debate was not whether or not it should be built, but rather if the new railroad would have a northern or southern route to California. Although topography would suggest the southern route would be easier to build, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois saw an opportunity to bring wealth and power to the city of Chicago. If Chicago were to be the hub for a northern based transcontinental railroad, this could guarantee political and financial gain for the ambitious senator who had his eyes on future White House run. In order to quell southern opposition to a northern railroad, Douglas put forth a bill that would repeal the Missouri Compromise and allow for the expansion of slavery into the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The idea of removing limitations on slavery's expansion delighted many powerful southerners in Washington. This included members of Pierce's cabinet like future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Pierce supported this bill and with his signature ignited a bloody conflict between pro and anti-slavery forces in Kansas. Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the creation of the Republican Party and did more than any other single piece of legislation to bring about the Civil War. Franklin Pierce could have stopped it, but instead, at the urging of his slave holding cabinet secretaries, he gave it his approval.
The only reason Franklin Pierce isn't lower on this list is because when he left office the nation was still (barely) a nation. The same can't be said of his successor. I give him a pass because of the extraordinary tragedy that he endured before his inauguration. The presidency has beaten and bloodied some of history's most accomplished leaders, how any man could endure it while in mourning is beyond me. The former President remained a controversial figure for the rest of his life. Just as controversy followed him, so did sorrow. Franklin Pierce, who had always had a drinking problem, increased his consumption late in life and died of his alcoholism. An ultimately sad ending to a man who had known great sadness.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.