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.
It is easy to complain about one's job. "The pay sucks." "I don't feel appreciated." "The hours are too long." "We need a union!" are all common complaints. And I've been more than guilty of making many of these same statements throughout my career. However, occasionally, it is healthy to reflect on the positive aspects of one's place of employment. I am blessed to have a job. I'm also blessed to work for an organization that has afforded me some awesome experiences. This month, I had yet another awesome opportunity. I spend 10 days with 21 students, 5 medical professionals, and a good friend/colleague in La Paz, Honduras.
This was only my second trip to Honduras. Although, the school at which I work sends a team every summer. The purpose of the trip is to share the love of Christ through medical services. Each Spring our school has an annual medical drive where we collect several thousand bottles of vitamins, cough medicine, eye drops, allergy medicines, and various other essential items. We also raise money to purchase large amounts of antibiotics and receive generous donations of hundreds of toothbrushes, toothpastes, and reading glasses. All of these items are packed into luggage and taken with our team to Honduras.
Upon arrival in the capital, Tegucigalpa, we boarded a bus and headed to the city of La Paz, in the district of La Paz. Once there we unloaded at our very comfortable and spacious mission house/compound. In my opinion, everyone, at some point in their life, should spend ten days living with 27 other people in one house. Especially when 21 of those people are teenagers (18 of which were girls), there is no A/C, limited water for showers, and a strict no flushing policy for toilet paper! But there's good food and quality coffee, so it's actually quite nice. One of the cool things we do in Honduras is confiscate our students cell phones. Surprisingly, the kids don't complain. Free of the distraction of social media for 10 days, students spend their time playing games, singing songs, journaling, and making new friends. You know, the kind of things kids like to do when not staring at a screen. Most would be surprised at how little the students actually miss their phones throughout the 10 days. Many remark that they appreciated the chance to unplug.
On Monday, we began our 5 days of clinics. In total we visited 4 different towns. A local church had distributed tickets to the clinic a few weeks in advance of our arrival allowing for roughly 250 patients to be seen each day. Students, with help from local bilingual students, recorded patient symptoms, measured blood pressure, and took temperatures. Then patients would visit one of four doctors. Students sat with the doctors, took notes, occasionally helped with medical procedures, and received a hands on learning experience. If necessary, patients would go to the dentist who spent a lot of time pulling troublesome teeth. At this station, students would assist by holding flashlights and occasionally help with the extraction. Patients then headed to the pharmacy, which is where I spend all of my time. In the pharmacy we did our best to fulfill the doctors' requests. I mixed dozens of bottles of antibiotics and counted dozens of bags of pills. Students worked filling orders, dividing cough syrup, grabbing pre-counted bags of Tylenol, Advil, and vitamins, and making sure children took their worm medicine. After pharmacy, patients went to the foot washing station where students cleaned their feet before praying with them. It is a rather heartwarming site to see admittedly privileged American students, humble themselves and willingly wash the feet of people they've never met. Many of our kids already have, or are quickly developing, the kind of servant's heart that will make a positive impact in their communities for years to come. Finally, patients were all then given toothbrushes and toothpaste and sent on their way.
All in all, roughly 1000 men, women, and children received much needed medical attention. It isn't that medicines and doctors don't exist in Honduras, it is simply that your average person can not afford these basic services. Most all medical procedures require cash payment in advance before any work can be completed. This includes surgery. Many Hondurans don't receive much needed surgery because they can't afford the cost, which includes renting the necessary surgical equipment. For many, the visit with our doctors is the only opportunity they have all year to receive help. The Hondurans will wait for hours in heat waiting to be seen without so much as a complaint. I don't remember the last time I went to a doctor and didn't find myself getting aggravated because it took so long. An emphasis on time is a very American quality.
The doctors that take the trip are amazing. All of them are taking time off of work, sacrificing personal time, money, and comfort to meet the needs of others, share their gifts, and impact students. We are very blessed to able to work with such wonderful people.
Medical care occupied the majority of our time, but it certainly wasn't the only thing we did in La Paz. The first Saturday in Honduras, we helped the church host a party for local children. Our students did a great job of playing games with kids and allowing them to have a great time. The next weekend we visited a local orphanage where our students served a meal to roughly 20 kids before spending a few hours having fun. Early one morning we went to one of the poorest areas of town where we, along with the local church, delivered meals to those in need. Walking through a village consisting of homes built out of tarps, cinder blocks, and sheet metal, helps one to be thankful for the blessing in his own life. Of course, we attended church. Like most things in Honduras, church takes as much time as is needed. They are not bound by the clock. Sunday services start at 4:00 PM and last roughly 3 hours. How many times have I become annoyed because the pastor spoke a little too long and I didn't beat the lunch crowd? The services are long, but they are so filled with so much energy and worship that it is easy to forget the heat and enjoy the moment. Four of our students were able to share their stories with the congregation. They did a wonderful job.
Finally, I have to take a moment to thank my wife, Erin. I'm a high school history teacher, yet I probably spend more time away from home than most teachers. By comparison to those whose career has them on the road each week it may not seem like much, but I spend about a month traveling for work each year. Between an annual senior trip to California, mission trips to Poland and Honduras, and other responsibilities, my job gives me the chance to do some really cool stuff. However, none of this would be possible without the support of my wife. Erin willingly encourages me to travel and takes on full responsibility around the house in my absence. With a 2 year old in the picture, this is not an easy task. I'm very blessed to have such a wonderful partner who gives me the support I need to experience wonderful things like my recent trip to Honduras.
Upon reflection, I am very happy that I went to Honduras this summer. To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to the trip. We're in the middle of selling our house. I feel guilty leaving my wife with our son. Its hot. I had lots of reasons to stay home. However, as is always the case, I received far more from the trip than I could ever hope to contribute. It is true that Christians take mission trips to serve others, however in truth mission trips allow us to grow in our own faith in ways that aren't always possible at home. Our kids did an amazing job and I'm so proud of them. Those who complain about the selfishness of the younger generation don't know the amazing kids I work with on a daily basis. It was an honor to serve with such fine people and I look forward to going back.
As a history teacher, discussing modern political figures always presents a unique problem in the classroom. Because of the hyper-political era in which we live, any criticism or praise of a living president immediately results in charges of bias or partisanship. Yes, I have my political opinions All teachers do. But that shouldn't take away from our ability to fairly and accurately assess the successes and/or failures of politicians and policies, regardless of our political leanings. Some will immediately dismiss my low ranking of our 43rd President as "liberal propaganda", but I hope that you will find that my arguments are based upon historical trends and observable truths. That being said, please feel free to share your thoughts if you disagree with anything I've written.
First, let me start by saying "I like George W. Bush." To my super liberal friends, I'm sorry. To my ultra-conservative friends, I'm serious. I find George W. Bush to be an engaging, likable, and honorable man. Whether it be through his inarticulate speaking style or his Texas confidence, Bush has a way of connecting to voters. At no point, even during my more liberal college years, did I ever find George Bush to be anything other than genuine. I have never doubted George W. Bush's patriotism or sincerity. When he would give a speech, support an policy, or sit for an interview, I never questioned that he truly believed the ideas he supported were in the best interest of the country. I believe George W. Bush is a man of principle and his brand of "compassionate conservatism" is something the current GOP could certainly benefit from.
All that being said, George W. Bush entered the White House under less than ideal circumstances. He like 3 Presidents before him, was elected without the consent of the governed. That is to say, he lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore. This fact has hampered every administration that has entered office under such circumstances. Bush would be no different. Of course, given the disaster that was the 2016, in which Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots, the roughly 500,000 that separated Gore and Bush seems laughable. Bush's inability to win a majority of votes wouldn't have been as serious an issue had it not been for the state of Florida. Bush's brother, Jeb, was the governor of Florida and elected officials in the Sunshine State had close ties to the Bush campaign. Because the vote was so close, state law required a recount. Of course, before all ballots were recounted, the Supreme Court intervened. Voting along ideological lines, the high court ordered that the recount stop. To interfere with a state issue like election administration is certainly an odd thing for conservative judges to do. Nevertheless, the court awarded Florida and the election to Bush. Did George W. Bush actually win the state of Florida? Probably. However, the optics of the scenario looked very bad. In the end, George Bush was elected, took the oath of office, and the country moved on. The peaceful transition of power, even in the midst of so much controversy, is a testament to our nation and our Constitution.
George W. Bush took office and began moving forward with a strong conservative agenda. He had big ideas: a huge tax cut, education reform, and entitlement reform. Some of these policies he was successfully able to implement. However, Bush's presidency will always be defined by the events of September 11, 2001. When Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and thanks to heroic passengers, into an empty field in Pennsylvania, the world forever changed. Suddenly, the singular focus of the United States government became keeping Americans safe from terrorism.
I was a junior in high school, living in rural Ohio on September 11th. I remember being very confused as my classmates and I spent the entire school day watching coverage of the attack. The first thing my dad said to me when he walked through our front door that afternoon was "This is the worst thing that has ever happened." Truth be told, he was probably right. No single day in American history had ever been worse. Later that evening, my parents and I rushed out to the fill our cars with gasoline. When we arrived at the gas station we found long lines and police officers. Older Americans, remembering the 1970s, were worried that renewed struggle in the Middle East would lead to an oil embargo and economic catastrophe. I was confused. The story seen in my hometown played out in small towns across the country. In large cities, families worried that their city might be next. I can't imagine the horror, fear, and uncertainty that played out in New York and Washington.
As President Bush addressed the nation following the attacks, Americans experience a sense of unity not seen since the days of World War II. Americans have differences; deep and significant. However, at the end of the day, we all love our country. Tea Parties, Bernie Bros, NRA members, and libertarians, we all love our country and will rally together. It is a shame that it often takes unspeakable tragedy to unify us. But in 2001, all Americans looked to President Bush to leadership. For a few short months, the President did not disappoint.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, we did so with nearly universal support. Americans of all walks of life rallied to the cause. Our Allies did their part as well. Invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter, the western alliance sent troops to Afghanistan. Canadian, French, German, British, and numerous other troops fought side-by-side with American servicemen and women. This is to say nothing of the invaluable amount of intelligence sharing that took place between European allies to bring terrorists to justice. NATO is important.
This isn't to say that there were not debates in early days of the "War on Terror", because there were. A good example of this would be the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Realizing that intelligence agencies and security organizations didn't do a good enough job communicating in the years leading up to 9/11, the decision was made to put them all under one cabinet level department. The role of the DHS, the NSA, the FAA, and many other organizations tasked with keeping us safe is still something that is hotly debated today. It is ironic however that Bush, a conservative who has decried the expansion of government, oversaw the single greatest centralization of federal government power in a generation. Fear makes us do funny things.
The extraordinary thing about the Bush presidency is how his support evaporated in the years following 9/11. Historically, Americans will give a President the benefit of the doubt during times of crisis. Therefore, it must tell us something about the magnitude of the mistakes the Bush administration made in the years following 2001 to explain the President's loss of support.
George W. Bush had a historic opportunity to transform the United States for the better following September 11th. Had the U.S. stayed focused on Afghanistan, given the political and international support the mission had, it is possible that American troops would not still be fighting and dying in Afghanistan today. Bush could have announced that 9/11 would mark the beginning of the end of our nation's reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Without economic dependence on the Middle East, the U.S. would be less likely to engage in military operations in the region. With the support of our allies, the NATO alliance the Western world could have become stronger than ever. The democratic world could use our alliance to further combat terrorism, address economic concerns, and combat climate change. Instead, due in large part to the terrible decisions made by the Bush administration in 2003, Afghanistan once again fell into chaos, the Middle East was destabilized, and a generations old alliance was strained. In 2003, the Bush administration made the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history: the invasion of Iraq.
Looking back, it is hard to understand how the the United States allowed itself to be pushed into war in Iraq. We know that within weeks of 9/11 discussions at the highest level of government began to focus on Iraq. We know there were those in the White House and those in the Pentagon who hungered for war in Iraq and salivated at the idea getting access to Iraq's oil supply. We know that Saddam Hussein's government, while evil, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. We know that despite some very shaky intelligence suggesting that Iraq might be pursuing Weapons of Mass Destruction, the overwhelming opinions of intelligence agencies around the world and the United Nations, they were not pursuing WMDs. We also know that no weapons were ever found in Iraq. We also know that Iraq, isolated and alone, with a second rate military, posed no threat to the United States or our allies. Despite all of this, members of Bush's inner circle, many of them with strong financial ties to the Middle East, convinced the President to order the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Without the support of our allies (save a halfhearted Great Britain), valuable resources were diverted from the unfinished work in Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. In March, the war had begun with the support of more than 60% of Americans.
All of us remember the scenes on television. The American military quickly dismantled the Iraqi security forces. within weeks Baghdad had fallen and Saddam Hussein was hiding in a spider hole. On May 1, 2003 aboard an aircraft carrier President Bush declared that major military operations in Iraq had ceased, The United States had won. In short, "mission accomplished." Soon all hell would break loose.
Bush was reelected in 2004. The true cost of the Iraq War was not yet known. Americans appreciated the President's leadership in the days following 9/11, and the Democrats put forward an honorable but ultimately weak candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. It also helped that the Bush campaign successfully, in my opinion, took advantage of people's faith for political gain. Rallying the Religious Right against the "threat" of gay marriage, the strong evangelical voting block organized in Bush's favor. For me the election of 2004 was important for two reasons. It was the first election in which I could cast a vote, which I found to be very exciting. It was also the first time I was told in a Sunday School class that it was my Christian duty to vote for the Republican Party. I quickly looked around half expecting to see a money changer a few tables over.
I always jokingly say to my students "I don't know why presidents run for 2nd terms, no one has ever had a good one." There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, George W. Bush might be the standard bearer for bad second terms. Thanks to the polices he pursued and events outside of his control, the younger Bush's 2nd term might be the worst in history.
For starters, Iraq descended into sectarian chaos. Without a stable government, without security, without jobs, sometimes without basic necessities, the centuries old powder keg in Iraq exploded. Terrorist organizations which had previously not been in Iraq set up operations. They were easily able to find recruits, because there were so many desperate people in Iraq. When the U.S. took over Iraq, the new government it set up fired all members of the military. Now there were thousands of unemployed young men, trained in warfare, willing to displace the invader. Thousands more, driven by extremism, traveled to Iraq to enter the fray. There was one such organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, that fought the United States to terrible effect during what came to be known as the Iraqi Insurgency. Today that organization is known as ISIS. Throughout 2005 - 2006, the situation in Iraq worsened. American soldiers, many times lacking the proper funding or support from Congress or the Bush administration, were under constant attack by Iraqi insurgents. Dozens of Americans died every month. The situation in Iraq did improve after Bush, to his credit, ordered a "surge" of troops to combat the violence. By the end of his presidency, the violence had (temporarily) eased. A new, extremely corrupt government would lead Iraq. The corruption and incompetence of the new Iraqi government would allow for ISIS to take control of much of their country after American forces left. Bush negotiated an end to American occupation before leaving office scheduling a withdrawal of troops that wold take place during President Obama's first term.
All told, nearly 4,500 American servicemen and women died serving our country in Iraq. The vast majority of these brave warriors died after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." The war in Iraq was a war of choice. The war weakened America at home, destabilized the Middle East, created a power vacuum that allowed organizations like ISIS to thrive, exploded that national debt, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. There is very little one can say in support of the argument that the War in Iraq was good for America. However, the war should serve as a reminder of the amazing blessing Americans have in our servicemen and women. Thousands of American soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors bravely and honorably served in Iraq and continue to do so throughout the world today. We owe it to these brave Americans to only send them into harm's way when absolutely necessary and to give them every resource they need to be successful on the battlefield. We owe it to them to provide them with the best medical care and educational opportunities when they return home. On these issues, even in these divided times, there should be no partisan debate.
The summer of 2005 saw another dark moment of the Bush presidency. Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August creating never before seen damage and suffering. The city of New Orleans was most affected, much of the city was overwhelmed by flood waters. Hundreds were killed, while thousands more fled for their lives while their homes were consumed by the sea. While obviously, it is not a president's fault if a hurricane hits the United States, President Bush was rightly criticized for his slow response. The areas most affected by the storm were generally the poorest neighborhoods which were overwhelmingly black. The delayed and inadequate response by state, local, and federal agencies caused many to question whether race played a role in the slow response. Many have argued that the reaction to Katrina highlighted the struggles associated with American federalism. Such arguments are correct. The division of power between the states and the federal government can be a complicated thing. Who should take the lead in dealing with the crisis, the state's governor or the President of the United States? While federalism is a fundamental principle in our Constitution, the middle of a natural disaster, when people are dying, is not the time to debate the proper role of the federal government. People needed help. They looked to their government for assistance and their leaders let them down.
Sadly, no discussion of George W. Bush's presidency would be complete without discussing the near collapse of the American financial system and the Great Recession that followed. As I've stated before, no President simply by their actions alone can cause the economy to grow or cause a recession. George W. Bush did not cause the failure of the housing market or bankruptcies of financial institutions. However, the underlying problems that led to the downturn had their basis in years of deregulation of the financial markets. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers were allowed to market and sell dangerous and risky products, such as sub-prime mortgages, to far too many Americans. Credit was easy, debt was high, and wages were stagnant. All of this led to a bursting of the housing bubble. When Bush, correctly in my opinion, encouraged Congress to step in and bailout the banks to prevent further suffering, his administration allowed for CEOs, many of whom were responsible for the mess, to receive lavish bonuses after taking taxpayer money. George W. Bush became the first President since Herbert Hoover to oversee a net loss of jobs.
There is so much more to talk about when discussing the presidency of George W. Bush. No Child Left Behind, his failed attempt at privatizing part of Social Security, the huge tax cuts, but there simply isn't enough time. When evaluating a presidency, one must harness their inner Reagan and ask whether or not the country was in better shape at the end of the President's term than at the beginning? In the case of George W. Bush, the answer is a resounding "no." At the end of Bush's time in office the nation was in the midst of the worse recession in 70 years. America was still fighting two wars, one of which was a war of choice, and the nation was deeply divided. Bush does deserve credit for his leadership in the weeks and months following 9/11. He showed strength, determination, and spoke words that encouraged and comforted a shocked nation. However, in the years that followed economic turmoil, foreign policy blunders, and an unfulfilled domestic agenda overtook the Bush presidency.
That being said, I still kind of like the guy.
Allow me to paint a picture for you. A political party is having trouble connecting to voters. With internal divisions, it is unclear who their standard bearer will be. However, desperate for a electoral win, the party looks to an outsider as a way of appealing to average citizens. Their candidate has no political experience. Their candidate has never run for public office. Their candidate doesn't seem to have any firm political principles at all. But, their candidate is a national celebrity. His fame and his ability to connect to the average American voter wins him enough support that he is elected President of the United States. No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. Rather, I'm talking about our 12th President, Zachary Taylor.
"Old Rough and Ready" as he was known was a true political outsider. Despite familiar connections to the political establishment of his time (Jefferson Davis was his son-in-law), Taylor never expressed much interest in politics. Taylor joined the army as a young man and served with distinction throughout his career. Taylor commanded troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole War. However, it was his leadership in the Mexican-American War that brought him national fame. In 1846, the United States hungered for northern Mexico, the territory now known as California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. When Mexico refused to sell the U.S. the land, President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to provoke a war with our southern neighbor by invading disputed territory. When the Mexicans took the bait and attacked the American invaders, Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war. Congress did as the President asked and the Mexican-American War began. The conflict that ensued was one-sided and controversial. To many Americans, it seemed as if the United States was attacking Mexico for nothing more than a desire for territory. Such behavior didn't seem to be in line with our nation's principles. Ulysses S. Grant, who was a young officer at the time, summed up the feelings of many regarding the war when he wrote:
"I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. [...] I do not think there was ever a more wicked war."
Nevertheless, despite the opposition by many, the Mexican-American War was a resounding military victory. This was in no small part due to the leadership of Gen. Taylor. The treaty that was signed at the end of the conflict ceded all of the modern southwest, most importantly California, to the United States.
In 1848, the Whigs were in search of a candidate to run for president. The young party was not as well organized as the Democrats, nor did it have as unified a platform. The Whigs had successfully run a candidate before. In 1840, William Henry Harrison was elected President, however he died just 31 days into his administration. If you've read this blog before you know what happened in the years that followed. However, despite Harrison's death, his election proved that a candidate with the right image could win votes from the common white man; votes that usually went to the Democrats. If General William Henry Harrison could be elected, why not try the same tactic again. Zachary Taylor was courted by the Whigs and reluctantly accepted their nomination. Now, a man who had no political experience, had never shown an interest in politics, and had never even registered to vote, was a major party's candidate for the nations highest office. The gamble paid off and Zachary Taylor was elected President of the United States.
Soon after taking office, President Taylor was faced with a uniquely American problem: the addition of a new state to the Union. In this case, the new state in question was the recently won territory of California. In 1848, gold was discovered near Sutter's Mill, California. As word spread, thousands of prospectors headed west in hopes of striking it rich with a majority of settlers arriving in 1849. These "forty-niners" led to an explosion in the population. With hundreds of hopeful fortune seekers arriving daily, California was struggling to keep up; after all there was no real government to speak of. Towns popped up around riverbeds and supposed gold deposits. Quickly California was overrun with bars, brothels, gambling halls, and a desperate need for law and order. Local officials quickly appealed to Congress to begin the process of applying for statehood. In fact, the Californians had already drafted a state constitution, which included a provision banning slavery in the soon-to-be state. Ordinarily, the addition of a star to the flag would be a reason for celebration. However, in 1849-1850 it was a point of great contention. Southern leaders realized that if California entered the Union as state free of slavery, the United States Senate would firmly be in the hands of Senators from free states. After all, the more populated North already controlled the House of Representatives. Fearing that the institution of slavery was under siege and angry at Northern states for refusing to return runaway slaves, some Southern leaders began to openly discuss secession.
In a surprise to everyone, Taylor a southern slave owner himself, firmly stood up to the secessionists. This included rebuking his son-in-law Jefferson Davis. Taylor, a man who had never taken a firm stand on any political issue, was now planting his feet firmly on the side of the Union. Taylor believed that California should enter the Union as a free state and nothing more. No concessions needed to be made to the South, no deal needed to be brokered, California would become a state and that would be that. To Taylor, like many in Washington, the idea of plantation slavery in arid California was ridiculous and therefore the entire controversy was meaningless.
The President understood that the religious devotion to slavery that many in the South felt had less to do with economics and more to do with the consolidation of power. Slavery had brought the planter aristocracy great wealth and influence. Any threat to the institution was therefore a threat to their power. President Taylor, who had promised that he would stay out of Congressional business and never use his veto power, also took an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution. Therefore, he was not about to let southern oligarchs tear apart the country over California.
The issue of California went unsettled throughout much of 1850. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a compromise bill that would admit California to the Union and also give generous (and immoral) concessions to the South. However, the bill became bogged down in Congress and lacked presidential support; the issue remained unresolved.
On July 4, 1850 President Taylor attended a groundbreaking celebration for the new Washington Monument. Throughout the day he consumed a pitcher of milk and a large bowl of cherries. By the evening, Taylor was complaining of severe stomach pain. Over the course of the next few days the President's condition worsened. On July 9th the President died. His body was transported to his family plot in Louisville, KY. However, soon after his passing rumors began to swirl that perhaps he had been poisoned by angry southerners. It would not be until the early 1990s that his body was exhumed and forensic tests revealed that he had not been poisoned, but rather most likely died of a gastrointestinal disease.
Millard Filmore assumed the presidency following Taylor's death. Within months, the ominous Compromise of 1850 was passed which admitted California to the Union, but also enacted the horrendous Fugitive Slave Act. Whether or not this would have occurred had Taylor lived can never be known. However, his hard line stance against secession and in favor of union suggests the outcome may have been different. President Taylor's time in office is certainly unremarkable. He died with no significant legislative or diplomatic achievements. He was either unable or unwilling to put forth a policy vision for the nation that his administration would pursue. However, for his willingness to stand up to southern secessionists over the California question, he deserves credit. Looking back, it appears that rugged general was indeed old, he was rough, but he wasn't ready to lead the country.
When Charles Guiteau was being hauled away after shooting President James Garfield, he loudly exclaimed "I am a Stalwart! Arthur is President now!" While those words may not mean much to political observers today, in 1881 would have represented a very real divide in the Republican Party. Indeed, Chester A. Arthur was a Stalwart. And he was, in fact, President now.
Chester A. Arthur, in many ways, represented all that was wrong with American politics in the late 1800s. The era, known as the "Gilded Age", was characterized by the ruthless pursuit of wealth, the centralization of power into the hands of Robber Barons, and most importantly, political corruption. During the Gilded Age, government, both state and federal, was controlled by a few powerful political machines. These machines were organizations that sought to control politics through winning votes and awarding supporters with cushy, high paying government jobs. It wasn't so much the Governor or President that appointed tax collectors, chairmen, and postmasters, as it was the political bosses that had ensured their election in the first place. Every major city, and indeed the federal government, was packed with corrupt, incompetent party loyalist who had their jobs and their large salary because they were willing to extort money, accept bribes, win votes, and sign contracts all in favor of the party machine's preferred candidate. One such party hack was Chester Alan Arthur.
Arthur liked to live the good life. He ate well, he dressed well, and he lived comfortably in Gilded Age New York. A lawyer by trade, Arthur had worked his way up the political ladder by proving to be a loyal servant of the New York Republican machine controlled by Senator Roscoe Conkling. By the 1870s, Arthur found himself Chief Collector of the Port of New York. Whoever controlled the Port of New York controlled the flow of money into the city. Whoever controlled the flow of money ensured that a portion of it would make it's way to the pockets of machine politicians. Chester A. Arthur had reached the pinnacle of machine politics and made sure that his party reaped the benefits of all the "honest graft" that came with it.
Of course, not everyone was OK with the political climate of the day. Many political leaders, in both parties, sought to clean up the system. A national movement began that called for Civil Service Reform. Government jobs, the advocates claimed, should be awarded on the basis of merit, rather than political loyalty. While this might seem like an obvious point of view today, in the 1800s it became a defining issue for the Republican Party. Those in favor of reform were known as Half-Breeds, while the traditional machine politicians who resisted reform were known as Stalwarts. This schism in the GOP came to a head when the reform-minded President Hayes fired the Stalwart Arthur from his post at the New York Customs house in 1878. Whether the Republican Party would embrace the modest reform started by Hayes or return to the Stalwart favored spoils-system was the most pressing issue of the Republican Convention in 1880.
In 1880, President Hayes decided not to seek reelection. The Republican Party, who had controlled the White House for much of the past 20 years, didn't want to let their internal disagreements lead to electoral losses in November. The decision was made to put forth a compromise ticket. The Presidential nominee would be the well-liked reform-minded Congressman from Ohio, James A. Garfield. The Vice-Presidential nominee would be none other than the Stalwart of all Stalwarts, Chester A. Arthur. It is worth noting that Arthur had never been elected to any office in his entire life to this point. His selection was clearly to make sure that the Stalwarts had a voice, however quiet, in the new administration. In November, the Republicans won an extremely close race. James Garfield was the new Commander-in-Cheif and Chester A. Arthur was now a heartbeat away from the presidency.
In September, 1881, only 7 months into his presidency, James Garfield died as a result of a gunshot wound he had received 2 months earlier. Arthur took the oath of office in New York and became the 21st President of the United States. The assassin, Charles Guiteau claimed he shot the President because Garfield had refused to give him a political appointment as a reward for his support in the campaign. In truth, Guiteau was a deranged individual with sociological and psychological problems. However, the headlines that Garfield, who fought for reform, was gunned down by a disgruntled office seeker convinced many Americans that politics had become to corrupt and civil service reform was necessary.
It would have been easy for Arthur to quiet the calls for change. After all, everything he had achieved in the his political career was thanks to the spoils-system. He was a the beneficiary of corruption and graft. The Stalwart way of doing things had brought him wealth and power. However, a career spent as part of a political machine no doubt gave him unique insight into the reality of Gilded Age politics. To the surprise of many, President Arthur, a product of the old system, signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Modest by today's standards, the law required that some government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit. Applicants would take exams to prove they were capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the office. The law only applied to 10% of the federal workforce, but it was the first piece of meaningful civil service reform.
Over the remaining 3 years in the White House, Arthur accomplished very little. Other than advocating for the modernization of the navy, there is very little one can point to as a a success. Not particularly popular with voters in his day, Arthur did not seek the Republican nomination in 1884. He returned home to his New York law firm and died a few years later. Chester A. Arthur was not a successful President. However, for his support of civil service reform, whether done out of pragmatism or a change of heart, our 21st president deserves credit.
The Election of 1876 was a turning point in American history. For the previous 11 years, Reconstruction, the occupation of the South by federal troops in the years following the Civil War, was remaking the former Confederacy. During these years of Reconstruction, the United States bore witness to a number of events that would forever shape the make up of our country and relationship between the people and their government.
The previous 11 years had witnessed the assassination of President Lincoln, the impeachment of President Johnson, and the corruption of President Grant. The Constitution had been amended 3 times during Reconstruction, abolishing slavery, defining citizenship, establishing civil rights, and banning discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of race. The occupation of the South allowed for the protection of recently freed slaves, the dismantling of the Ku Klux Klan, and election of Republican majorities in Southern capitals. African Americans in the South, though still facing extreme discrimination, poverty, and racism, were experiencing a level of freedom only dreamed of by previous generations. Numerous African Americans were even elected to public office. The nation was, however timidly, taking the first grueling steps toward the "new birth of freedom" of which Lincoln had once spoke. However, all this political reform became expensive and Americans have short attention spans. Southern Democrats hated Reconstruction and wanted the Yankee "carpetbaggers" to leave so that they might "redeem" the South. Fiscally conservative northern Republicans were getting tired of paying for an endless military occupation of the Southern states. The scars of the Civil War were far from healed, but the nation no longer wanted endure the necessary treatment.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated by the Republican Party to be their candidate for president. After 8 years of corruption in the scandal-ridden Grant administration, the Republicans knew they had to put forward a candidate with a reputation for honesty. Hayes had been an officer in the Civil War, a Congressman, and a successful Governor. He was known as a person of high character and was from the all important state of Ohio. For these reasons, he was chosen as the nominee.
On Election Day 1866, the race was deadlocked. As the days passed, it was unclear whether Hayes or Samuel Tilden, the Democratic Governor of New York, had been elected the new President. When all votes were counted, it was appearing as if Hayes had lost. Behind by hundreds of thousands of ballots in the popular vote, Hayes had resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be elected. However, 3 states, South Carolina, Louisiana, and yes, Florida each set two sets of officially election returns for Congress to verify. In short, one set of returns from each state was legitimate, the other fraudulent. This is not surprising given the extremely corrupt nature of Gilded Age politics. It was unclear who won these three states, but the election hung in the balance. Both parties declared victory. The contentious election led to very real threats of a new Civil War.
By early 1877, Americans still didn't know who would be the new commander-in-chief. And you though 2000 was bad? Congress and President Grant agreed to form a new bipartisan electoral commission consisting of congressmen, senators, and member of the supreme court. After weeks of negotiations, the commission awarded the election to Hayes, the loser of the popular vote. Why? There was a quid pro quo in which the Democrats agreed to let the Republicans have the White House if the GOP would in turn end Reconstruction allowing for a return of Democratic control of southern legislatures. With the end of Reconstruction came the implementation of Jim Crow, the reversal of progressive social polices, and the political domination of blacks by whites. It isn't clear whether or not Hayes personally agreed to this proposal, but nevertheless it happened.
Hayes' presidency has been forgotten by most Americans, but it was certainly divisive in its day. Being elected President without winning the popular vote, without the consent of the governed, is an unenviable position for anyone and Hayes was no different. To many Americans, the President was known as "Ruther-Fraud" or "His Fraudulentcy". Being considered illegitimate by a large portion of the population makes enacting a real agenda quite difficult.
Unlike other Presidents far down on this list, there are no scandals or policies personally enacted by Hayes that had dire consequences for the nation, rather a complacency that seemed to allow social and economic problems to persist without action on the President's part. Unlike the previous Grant administration that, for all of it's shortcomings, attempted to bring about change to the nation, Hayes was content to "let 'em alone." This is not only true of the tragic discrimination of blacks in the South, but also toward the growing influence of corporate America and the unfair treatment of industrial workers that came to characterize the Gilded Age. We know that Hayes was personally concerned with the treatment of blacks in the South, but he did nothing. We know that the President had real concerns about the growing disparity between the rich and poor, but his reaction to labor unrest was to send in federal troops. This can be seen with his handling of the Great Railroad Strike. We know that Hayes was disgusted by the corrupt nature of late nineteenth century politics in which party bosses filled government posts with loyalist and those willing to pay the highest price. However, Hayes was politically hamstrung by the fact that many viewed him as illegitimate (That happens when you lose the popular vote) and accomplished very little.
Hayes honored a pledge to serve only one term. After leaving office he became a champion for education reform. The former president helped raise money that opened the door for education opportunity for many. For his post-presidency work he should be commended. What is obvious is that Rutherford B. Hayes believed in the power of collective action. He believed that government, at least from a nineteenth century perspective, could have a positive impact on the lives of Americans. It is truly ironic however that during his time in White House he did very little to use the powers of his office for good.
Herbert Hoover is a true American success story. Orphaned at a young age in Iowa, Herbert was sent to live with family in Oregon. Young Herbert dropped out of school at the age of 13 and never attended high school. His only formal education came in the form of tutoring in the evening. However, his true education came working as a clerk in his uncle's real estate office. Eventually, Hoover was accepted into Stanford University where he studied Geology. After college he traveled the world, from Australia to China working in mining operations. By the early 1900s, Hoover had founded his own successful mining business and become a multimillionaire. The poor orphan kid from Iowa, was now an international capitalist.
When World War I began, Hoover helped to organize the a relief effort to send food to war-torn Belgium. Given the scale of the suffering in Europe during WWI, it would not be an overstatement to say that Herbert Hoover's efforts help to save the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians. His efforts did not go unnoticed. Upon America's entrance into the war, Hoover was quickly selected by President Woodrow Wilson to oversee the U.S. Food Administration. The organization oversaw the process of feeding our troops overseas, while still meeting he needs of families at home. After the war, Hoover made sure that desperate Europeans, including America's former enemies, received food. In this role, Hoover, yet again, excelled.
During both the Harding and Coolidge administrations, Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce; far from the most prestigious cabinet post. However, Hoover, reluctant to enter public service, approached the job with the same Quaker work ethic that had served him so well in business. As Commerce Secretary Hoover was known for his administrative skills and efficiency. A true big business conservative, Herbert Hoover seemed an obvious choice for the GOP nomination in 1928. Hoover was not a dynamic speaker. He was a man lacking charisma with none of the polish of a professional politician. After all, he'd never been elected to any office before in his life. However, he did have a reputation for hard work, integrity, and administrative skill. These qualities, coupled with a booming economy, the appearance of peace in the world, and a hopelessly divided Democratic Party, Herbert Hoover was easily elected President of the United States.
During the 1928 campaign, Herbert Hoover proclaimed "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." Despite these claims, within months of his inauguration, the stock market crashed and the economy fell into the depths of the Great Depression. As the months passed the economy suffered in ways that few Americans alive today could ever imagine. Banks were closing at a staggering place causing the loss of millions of dollars of savings and freezing the flow of credit. Without access to credit, thousands of businesses failed causing millions to lose their jobs. The staggering unemployment rate (25% at its highest point), and the evaporation of income caused a domino effect that led once healthy small businesses to fail due to a lack of customers. Without any semblance of a social safety net, desperate people turned to any form of assistance that was available. Within months, churches and private charities were overwhelmed. To their credit, I suppose, gangsters like Al Capone offered temporary relief to the desperate masses in the form of soup kitchens. Where was the government? Where was the President? To many Americans, it appeared that Hoover wasn't willing to do anything to help. After all, this was a man who once claimed that government assistance, of any kind, would destroy work ethic, the "rugged individualism" that had made America great. Thousands of Americans simply wandered from town to town looking for any kind of work. None was to be found.
In the meantime, Hoover's name became a pseudonym for economic misery. The unemployed who had lost their homes would often times construct a "Hoover Hotel": a cardboard shack. An entire community of shacks was known as a "Hooverville." Fair or unfair, President Hoover became the symbol of the Great Depression.
Herbert Hoover does not deserve blame for causing the Great Depression. No president could have caused such a catastrophe even if they tried. It is not the Depression itself that lands Hoover so far down on my list, it is his reaction to the crisis. One of Hoover's ideas was a scheme known as "Voluntarism." Hoover asked business owners and leaders of industry to voluntary keep wages high and resist laying off employees. To Hoover it seemed like a logical idea. As a businessman himself, Hoover believed in treating people with respect and valuing employees. Perhaps, if he were still in the private sector, he would have done the sort of voluntary sacrifice he was asking of the business community. However, industry leaders had to deal with the economic realities of the day and were not about to jeopardize their already suffering businesses anymore than was necessary for the sake of the nation's economic health. Voluntarism didn't work.
Hoover did propose some government spending to try to stimulate the economy. In fact, the iconic Hoover Dam which bares his name was an example of such an infrastructure project that paid dividends economically in the years to come. That be said, Hoover, ever the cautious businessman avoided aggressive government action for fear that the budget might be negatively impacted. Government spending under Hoover, no matter how effective, always fell woefully short of what was necessary to have any real impact on the economy.
In 1932, after some debate, the Republicans renominated Hoover for another term as President. Hoover's chances of being reelected in the middle of the Depression were already dismal before he made the greatest mistake of his presidency. An army of unemployed WWI veterans descended on Washington in the summer of 1932. The "Bonus Army" was in Washington to lobby Congress for advance payment of a bonus that was due veterans in 1945. Given the scale of the economic downturn, it is understandable why desperate people would try to get immediate access to cash that was owed them, even if it was 13 years early. After all, when there is a chance to help veterans and their families, the politically wise (not to mention moral) thing to do is listen. Hoover disagreed.
When a bill to help the Bonus Marchers was defeated in Congress. The marchers, who had set up a camp of shacks, a "Hooverville", just outside of town, refused to leave. After police intervention failed to remove the marchers, Hoover ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to remove the veterans, the trespassers, with federal troops. MacArthur no doubt exceeded his orders when he had soldiers charge at the veterans with bayonets fixed. The troops threw tear gas into the encampment. As the marchers and their families fled, many were injured, others arrested, and their camp burned to the ground. Hoover's days in office were numbered.
Hoover's failed presidency, on the surface, doesn't seem like it ever should have happened. The biggest challenge of the day was the economy. Who better to solve economic problems than a successful businessman? As it turns out, success in business, is far from a guarantee of success in politics. Leadership is more than head knowledge and the American people are more than numbers on a spreadsheet. Herbert Hoover, for all of his business acumen and work ethic, lacked perhaps the greatest quality needed in a President: the ability to inspire hope.
Herbert Hoover is a great American. A true success story that proves what is possible through hard work, intelligence, and a self-determination. He should be honored for his many successes, service to his country, and indeed the people of Europe. However, his presidency was a victim of the times. The only way to be a truly great President is to be faced with a crisis and successfully lead the nation through. Very few individuals possess such abilities. Sadly, Herbert Hoover did not.
There isn't much to say about Martin Van Buren. The 8th President is known more for his unique facial hair than any of his accomplishments in office. There are two reasons for this. #1 Look at those sideburns! #2. There aren't many accomplishments for which Van Buren can take credit. It is this lack of achievement that lands The Notorious MVB at number 36 on my list.
Van Buren was a big city politician through and through. His keen understanding of machine politics and the "spoils system" in which government jobs were exchanged for votes and loyalty earned him the nickname the "Little Magician." His ability to make deals, win votes, and earn the support of influential New York politicians and businessmen allowed him to become the chief architect of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party was the first political organization to seek national rather than regional political influence. It is this party structure, created by Martin Van Buren, that allowed Andrew Jackson and others to gain national popularity.
Van Buren served as Andrew Jackson's Vice President during his second term. After 4 years as America's number two man, Van Buren received the popular President's blessing and was awarded the Democrat's nomination for President in the election of 1836. Facing opposition from multiple members of the new Whig Party, Van Buren easily won the Presidency. Then everything went downhill.
Within weeks of Van Buren's inauguration, the Panic of 1837 shocked the American economy. The collapse of the cotton market and reckless speculative investments in western lands led to a series of bank failures, resulting in high unemployment and foreclosures. Partisan arguments between the Democrats and the Whigs regarding the proper course to take did nothing to solve the economic catastrophe or alleviate the suffering of thousands. Of course, there wasn't much the President could do. He was hampered fiscal and monetary polices of the Jackson administration, an administration in which he served. With no clear path forward and no centralized bank (thanks to Jackson) to stabalize the economy, the recession lasted for several years. The Panic of 1837 was the most devastating economic downturn to that point in American history. Van Buren does not deserve blame for the recession, but he did nothing to inspire confidence in the public that the government was working to address the crisis.
On the issue of slavery, Martin Van Buren was personally opposed to the institution. However, while President he did little to stop its expansion or challenge its existence. A famous example of this occurred in 1839 when the Spanish ship Amistad was transporting slaves throughout the Caribbean. A group of enslaved Africans escaped from their chains and took control of the ship. The slaves successfully navigated the ship to the coast of New York seeking freedom. The ship and passengers were captured by a United States vessel and the rebellious slaves suddenly found themselves in the middle of a custody battle between American abolitionists and the Spanish government. Throughout the entire legal proceedings, from the District Court to the Circuit Court of Appeals, the Van Buren administration sided with Spain, hoping to see the escaped slaves returned to bondage. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court where the slaves, represented by former President John Q. Adams, were granted their freedom. Van Buren, although probably driven by a desire to maintain good relations with Spain and with the southern wing of his party, was on the wrong side of history.
However, no issue better exemplifies Martin Van Buren's tone deafness to the long arch of justice than his treatment of Native Americans. As will be discussed in future entries into this blog, President Andrew Jackson successfully pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act which authorized the President to forcefully remove all tribes still living east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s. One tribe, the Cherokee sued the government and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a surprising decision, the High Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee and declared that they had the right to stay on their land. President Jackson famously remarked that Chief Justice John Marshall had made his decision, "now let him enforce it." In violation of the court order, Jackson began the process of forcefully removing the remaining tribes to clear the land for white settlement. The most infamous part of this removal was the forced march of the Cherokee along the Trial of Tears in which thousands died. However, this forced march took place during Van Buren's administration, not Jackson's. Martin Van Buren had the chance to uphold the court order, allow the Cherokee to stay in their homes, and do what was both morally and legally right. Instead, Van Buren chose to follow in the tyrannical footsteps of his political ally, Andrew Jackson.
A few years after leaving office, Martin Van Buren would become one of only a handful of ex-presidents to run for the nation's highest office again, but under a different party's banner. In 1848, Van Buren was nominated by the upstart Free Soil Party, a party opposed to the spread of slavery to the western territories. The campaign won no electoral votes and dissolved a few years later.
In the end, Martin Van Buren found more success as a deal maker and party builder than he ever did as President. Van Buren's time in office reminds us that the President must be far more than a skilled politician, he must be a leader. Martin Van Buren lacked leadership and was unable to correctly deal with rapidly changing political landscape. This, along with economic challenges beyond his control, doomed his presidency.
So, this one is tough. As I've been writing this blog series, "All the Presidents, Man!", I've struggled with where to put our 9th President. When it comes to presidential accomplishments, no leader has had fewer. That being said, William H. Harrison left office with zero scandals. By comparison to other leaders on this list, that's saying something. Some might argue that it isn't even fair to include Harrison on the list at all. The reason is simple: he died 31 days into his term! Nevertheless, I have decided to include Harrison in my list and rank him #37 to serve as a kind of bridge between the presidencies that were truly failures and those that were simply bad.
A bit of history: The Harrison family was one of a handful of politically powerful families in the early days of the American republic. William's father was a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Needless to say, Harrison had the kind of patriotic bonafides that would provide him with every opportunity for success in the future.
However, it was on the battlefield rather than the political arena that Harrison gained national fame. In 1811, Harrison serving as military governor of Indiana territory won the Battle of Tippecanoe, crushing an Indian confederation led by Shawnee chief Tecumseh. The confederation was the greatest threat ever posed by Native Americans against American westward expansion. Harrison neutralized that threat. This victory and his leadership during the War of 1812 made "Old Tippecanoe" a national hero.
In 1840, the United States was still reeling from the Panic of 1837, the greatest economic disaster to that point in American history. With Democrat Martin Van Buren in the White House, the Whigs knew they could win the presidency for the first time in their history, if only they chose the right candidate. But what makes a person the "right" candidate? The Election of 1840 was the first presidential election to feature large rallies, campaign songs, and slogans. In fact, the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" is one of the best known campaign slogans in American history. The reason for this change in campaign style was due to the fact that both parties were trying to win the votes of the average white male voter. Thanks to the expansion of voting rights over the past 2 decades, there was now universal white male suffrage and appealing to such men was essential. Playing of of the popularity of the former President Andrew Jackson, the Whigs sought a candidate who was could also claim to have helped vanquish the British and defeated the Indians on the battlefield. William Henry Harrison was that man.
The Whigs depicted Harrison as a down to earth, frontier general who understood the plight of the common man. Their campaign wanted to convince voters that "Old Tippecanoe", unlike the aristocrat Van Buren, was one of them. After all, they claimed that Harrison could "fight and drink hard cider!" The imagery worked and for the first time in American history, the Whigs had a man in the White House.
On Inauguration Day, Harrison, who despite his campaign image, was a well-educated and well-spoken man, decided to deliver an extremely long and learned address. The story goes that the new President was not dressed properly for the blustery day as he delivered the longest inaugural speech in history; nearly 2 hours. A few days later, Harrison began to complain that he was feeling ill. As time passed, the President became bedridden and his condition worsened. On April 4th, 31 days into his presidency, William Henry Harrison died of complications from pneumonia.
For years, Harrison's short presidency has served as a cautionary tale against lengthy speeches and in favor of wearing a jacket. After all, a cold can turn to pneumonia rather quickly. However, recent research suggests that perhaps it wasn't pneumonia at all that killed the President. Perhaps a more important lesson is "don't poop where you eat."
In 1841, there was no sewer system in the City of Washington. There was essentially no sanitary way of disposing of human waste in the White House. So, when the White House facilities would be cleaned, the "night soil" as it was known, would be taken to a field a few blocks away from the executive mansion. However, the field of human waste was slightly elevated, meaning that when it rained much of the bacteria growing in the field would wash back down into the city, right toward the White House, contaminating the water supply. It is possible that Harrison developed an ailment as a result of drinking contaminated water. In fact, researchers have found that the symptoms Harrison complained about were far more consistent with a gastrointestinal illnesses such as typhoid rather than pneumonia. Two other presidents (Taylor and Polk) would also die of similar causes just a few years later. You can read more about this discovery here.
So then, why has pneumonia always been cited as the cause of Harrison's death? The doctors treating the President were under a lot of public pressure to correctly diagnose the Commander-in-Chief while he was sick and under even more pressure to correctly identify the cause of death. Not fully understanding the nature of Harrison's illness or the causes of it, the doctors most likely simply gave their best guess as to what killed Harrison. Doctors didn't understand gastrointestinal issues, but they did understand, and the public was familiar with, pneumonia. When the public demands an answer, one must be given. Pneumonia worked will enough.
We will never know what kind of leader Harrison may have been. What we do know is that his death created a constitutional crisis discussed earlier in this series. His death also served as a dark omen for future Whig seeking the nation's highest office. You'll never guess what happens to the next guy. Cherries and milk, anyone?
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.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
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