Friday, July 30, 2010


A review of H. Paul Jeffers’s An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (2000)

(Rating 4 of 5)

H. Paul Jeffers does not like footnotes, and he shares this opinion with Theodore Roosevelt, because footnotes ‘ruin the narrative’. Well, I like footnotes, it makes looking up information that much easier, but I am willing to let the author have his preferences, after all, he does have a brilliant narrative. Jeffers describes the life of President Grover Cleveland and the world in which he lived.

One of the things that becomes very apparent when reading this book is what a nice an honest man Cleveland really was—hence the title. That may sound amusing but I am serious! When looking at his life and political career, it is easy to spot things that one may disagree with, but it is a respectful disagreement that requires no question into the ethics of his character. Cleveland is a Democrat but his politics are difficult to place in a modern left/right spectrum, since what consists of the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ changes over the decades it is hard to tell where he would fit in, some of his positions on issues could go either way.

Born Stephan Grover Cleveland, and like the author of his book, choose to answer by his middle name amongst friends and professionals. He was born in 1837, and during the Civil War he did not fight but paid a replacement, so it can be said he was our first draft dodger president, although his action was legal. It is important to point out that he never tried to cover this up and, if asked, openly admitted to it.

Cleveland’s profession, like many presidents, was the law. As a lawyer, he began at law firm before starting his own practice and he later went on to become an assistant district attorney, running for the top job but losing the election to his own roommate in 1865. In 1870, Cleveland was elected the Sheriff of Erie County, as Sheriff he refused to have his deputies perform the gruesome task of an execution, and handled both that occurred under his watch. After his two-year term was over, he would go to private practice.

Cleveland would resume a political career that would launch him straight to the presidency in four years. In 1880, he was approached by local Democratic Party officials to run for mayoralty of Buffalo, he accepted and defeated his opponent Milton C. Beebe in the general election. Mayor Cleveland began to tackle corruption at City Hall. When the City Council accepted the highest bid for a street cleaning project because of the political connection of the bidder, the new Mayor vetoed that decision in his first stand against corruption.

This would launch a campaign for the governor’s mansion. In 1882, Cleveland ran and won the office of Governor of New York, defeating his opponent Charles J. Folger rather handily. As Governor, Cleveland would earn many admires including a young state legislator named Theodore Roosevelt. His elevated train veto was the mark of a reform in government that the state had not seen in a good deal of time. People started to think they would like to see this action at the national level.

“He did so not because he was paying a political debt, as critics charged. He rejected it, like so many other bills placed before him as mayor of Buffalo and governor, because he considered it poorly drafted. This was an objection in which the author of the measure eventually concurred, calling his own bill ‘a very shabby piece of legislation, quite unfit to find a place in the statute book.’ Roosevelt was not assuaged and said so in harsh language in a widely published speech. Grover discounted it as typical but momentary Roosevelt passion.” p.91

(Young TR is impressed with Governor Cleveland)

After a convention, battle Governor Cleveland won the Democratic Presidential Nomination of 1880. His election against the Republican James G. Blaine of Maine would be labeled, the public sinner vs. the private sinner. Blaine’s corruptions were laid bare and Cleveland’s personnel life was attacked. Cleveland prevailed however and defeats Blaine in the general election.

(Anti-Cleveland cartoon)

“With election day drawing closer, Grover remained in Albany in the welcome company of Oscar Folsom’s widow and their pretty daughters, Frances, officially his ward. Awaiting the vote, he was assured of the support of two of New York’s mightiest newspapers. The influential Herald had informed its readers, ‘We are told that Mr. Blaine had been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been the model of official integrity, but culpable in his personnel relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.’” p.117

(James G. Blaine)

As the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland continued his reforming ways by taken on a fight on corruption that was started by Chester A. Arthur as the Civil Service Reform. Cleveland created the Inter-State Commerce Commission. He also reduced tariffs and upheld the gold standard.

(President Cleveland)

He also decide to get married, he married Frances Folsom, a young woman in her twenties who was the daughter of his late friend Oscar Folsom. The couple would go on to have five children together.

(First Lady Frances Cleveland)

“He proposed to Frances about a year earlier, in a letter to her when she was visiting relatives in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She accepted and they agreed to keep the engagement secret until such time as Grover was ready to announce it. Mary and others of the family who learned of the betrothal honored his request to keep that fact to themselves. This soon would prove to be difficult as Washington, D.C., stirred with rumors and heated speculation that the president would not be a bachelor much longer. The nominee for bride among the gossips was the widow Folsom. The more daring stated with certitude that it would be her daughter.” p.171

(Cleveland Family)

Not all was well, however, Cleveland would, although re-nominated by the Democrats, would lose the general election of 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Cleveland won the popular vote but the Electoral College kicked him out.

(President Benjamin Harrison)

The former President would try to return to law practice, which he felt foolish, arguing before judges whom he appointed. As time went on, he was critical at what the government was doing and in 1892 threw his hat back into the ring. Nominated by the Democrats for President for the third time in a row*, Cleveland headed into the rematch. This was only election in history in which the incumbent president faced his own predecessor. This time Cleveland won both the popular and Electoral College vote. The twenty-second president had just become the twenty-fourth.

(President again)

Unfortunately, for Cleveland the second term began with a financial panic, and labor unrest. The Pullman strike was a threat to the nation, since it crippled the railroads, and President Cleveland had to send troops out to suppress it. President Cleveland also had to deal with more foreign policy issues then he had in the past. He did successful arbitrate a dispute between the British Empire and Venezuela over territory.

The President would retire after his second term and be replaced by William McKinley; although of the other party, McKinley was the candidate who Cleveland preferred. He would have a quiet retirement as a trustee of Princeton University. He would perform one last act of public service; President Theodore Roosevelt had him serve on the Commission on the Coal Strike of 1902, which ended positively for all.

When he died in 1908, the last words that the former President had said was, “I tried so hard to do right.” H. Paul Jeffers captures not just President Cleveland but also his world, everything from Eugene V. Debs and Lizzy Borden can be found here.

*No one had done that since Andrew Jackson.

{Video from YouTube}

Thursday, July 29, 2010


A review of Walter R. Borneman’s Polk (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

As a presidential history buff, I often get asked who I thought was the greatest president, and not wanting to bring up the usual suspects (Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc.) I would calmly say ‘James K. Polk.’ There were two reasons for this, one, I wanted to say something that would shock them; and, two, he actually is one of the better presidents. He is the only president who accomplished all he set out to do*. The entire country would look rather different today if it were not for Polk.

Walter Borneman does an incredible job capturing the essence of the eleventh president. A very sick child, he had to have gallstones removed when he was only eleven. He grew up on his father’s slave holding plantation, and during his life, he would inherit twenty slaves. He would marry Sarah Childress, who would become the most active first lady politically since Abigail Adams. Polk was admitted to the bar and his first client was his own father.

(Sarah Childress Polk)

Borneman traces Polk’s incredible rise to power as one of the young politicians that strongly followed Andrew Jackson's leadership. Jackson was so found of Polk that their relationship earned the young man the nickname ‘Young Hickory.’ In 1823, he was elected to the state legislature where his speaking skills earned him his second nickname, ‘Napoleon of the Stump.’

(James K. Polk talents helped him become the Speaker of House)

In 1825, having been elected to the United States House of Representatives, he became be a loyal ally of Andrew Jackson. During Jackson’s second term, Polk was elected Speaker of House, where he earned a reputation for order and never challenged anyone to a duel. After two terms as the Speaker, Polk left Congress and was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1838; the last time Polk would win an election in Tennessee.

(President Jackson was Mr. Polk patron on his rise to the White House)

Due to an economic downturn in the Van Buren Administration, Polk was voted out of office with all the other Democrats in 1840; he tried to reclaim his lost office in 1842 and failed. Then something remarkable happened in 1844, I divided Democratic Party gave a man whose political future seemed hopeless, a new shot. Polk was able to secure the presidential nomination away from a great many better known candidates, making Polk the first ever ‘dark hoarse’ candidate**. As the Democratic nominee, Polk would go on to defeat Henry Clay in the general election. James Polk became the first president to achieve the office, before his fiftieth birthday.

“As the 1844 campaign shifted into high gear, the Whigs may well have despised James K. Polk, but at least they knew where he stood—particularly on the issue of Texas. For Clay, it was bad enough that he was repeatedly forced to deny that his same-day announcement with Van Buren against Texas annexation was merely coincidental and not evidence of another corrupt bargain. But Clay decided to clarify—as only he could—his position on annexation, it looked to some Whigs that, at best, their candidate was flirting with the increasingly popular mantel of expansionism and, at worst, trying to have the issue both ways.” p.122

(Henry Clay, was beaten by Polk in 1844, which was his last shot at the presidency)

Polk was the clearly the strongest President in between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. He achieves everything he set out to do. Some of his lesser-known accomplishments were the reduction of tariffs, and the Independent Treasury. The Independent Treasury allowed the Treasury Department to be responsible for keeping and managing the nation’s money itself and not have to act though any bank.

(President Polk, our most effective president)

One of Polk’s larger accomplishments was the securing of the disputed Oregon Territory without any military conflict with the British Empire. Despite the famous slogan forty-four-forty-or-fight it became, according to Borneman, forty-four-forty-or-compromise.

His most famous act came from the Mexican-American War, a war, which Mexico had been threatening since the U.S. first thought of annexing Texas. Polk put troops on the disputed territory and waited. When the attack came, known as the Thornton Affair after the young American officer in command, President Polk had his cause for war. His methods earned him many enemies, including a young Whig Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

(Young Abe Lincoln was no fan of Polk)

“That evening at a special Cabinet meeting, there was other dissension in the ranks. Buchanan presented a draft of his proposed dispatch to American missions abroad announcing the declaration of war. The secretary of state proposed to inform foreign governments that ‘in going to war we did not do so with a view to acquire either California or New Mexico or any other portion of the Mexican territory.’ Polk for his part was incredulous. What Cabinet meeting had Buchanan been attending for the past year?” p.207

(Secretary of State James Buchanan, not the most effective cabinet officer nor president)

The war went on for two years, ending with the U.S. taking a sizable chunk of territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for fifteen million dollars. When the issue of slavery came up, Polk stated he did not think slavery was possible in the new territories, but did not support the Wilmot Priviso to ban it.

In 1848, even though the Whigs were against the war, they nominated Zachary Taylor, the general, for president. Even though President Polk did not run for re-election, health and a one-term pledge kept him out, General Taylor would never attack Polk in his victorious campaign against Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren.

(Zachary Taylor was one of the top generals of the Mexican American War and Polk's successor as president)

Polk’s post-presidency did not last long. He died after only a few months out of office, in his will he ordered that his slaves be set free when his wife died, but his wife lived all the way until 1891, which made that pledge irrelevant.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It is a fascinating book about a fascinating topic. The presidency of James K. Polk is one of the most accomplished on record.

*You could, of course, argue that Abraham Lincoln accomplished more then he set out to do.

**'Dark Horse' refers to a candidate who is not well known.

{First video is of the folk band They Might Be Giants and the song James K. Polk, the second video is the same song performed by young fans.}

Monday, July 26, 2010


A review of Edward P. Crapol’s John Tyler: Accidental President (2006)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Edward P. Crapol tells the story of one of America’s least known presidents, John Tyler. Known as ‘His Accidentcy’, John Tyler was the first person to achieve the presidency via succession rather than election. That singular action makes him important because it cemented and important constitutional precedent. Crapol ‘s narrative is at times odd; he seems to swing back in forth through different parts of President Tyler’s life throughout the work.

Crapol tells his story beginning at the birth of the future president. John Tyler was born into on the finest families in Virginia. Tyler’s father, also John Tyler, was the college roommate of Thomas Jefferson. Tyler himself, during his career, would give the oration at the funeral of Thomas Jefferson.

Tyler would be a defender of Southern principals during his career; he would defend the expansion of slavery under James Madison’s absurd ‘diffusion’ theory* and stood for States' rights against what he viewed as the entrenching Federal government.

Tyler would go on to serve in several offices, in the state legislature, the in United States House of Representatives, as Governor of Virginia, and the United States Senate. He would even serve in the office of President Pro Tempore in the U.S. Senate. After the break-up of the Democratic-Republican Party, Tyler joined the Jacksonians, but would ultimately turn to the newly forming Whig Party. He would run for vice president on one of the Whig tickets in 1836, and then in 1840 he would be the vice presidential nominee on the unified Whig ticket under William Henry Harrison. Known as ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too,’ the pair would go on to win the election. Tyler would serve as Vice President of the United States for one month, and then President Harrison died.

(President William Henry Harrison, served only one month as president)

The Constitution did not specify what happened if the president actually died, some thought the Vice President would become President, John Adams, the first Vice President, said so himself in the beginning. Others thought that he would serve until Congress scheduled a new election to elect someone to fill in the rest of the remaining term. Tyler declared that he was the President and would not even open mail that did not acknowledge him as such. The Congress decided to side with the new President, and the Chief Justice, Rodger Taney**, swore in the tenth President of the United States.

“John Tyler made the most of having been forewarned and forearmed. He met the challenge of being the first vice president to navigate the uncharted waters of presidential succession in the young republic by establishing the Tyler precedent. From this time forward, the vice presidency assumed new importance. The holder of the formally disdained office now found himself a heartbeat away from the chief executive’s chair and, thanks to John Tyler, the presidency as an institution became independent of death. The man who had been mocked ‘His Accidency’ accomplished what he had set out to do. He ignored the objections to those who claimed the framers had not intended the vice president to become president in his own right on the death of an incumbent.” p.27

Tyler, who for years had argued for executive restraint, embodies on a policy that would get him ejected from the Whig Party***. He would veto a new national bank bill, complete the Webster–Ashburton Treaty to straighten the U.S. boarder with British Canada, and lead several foreign policy initiatives that would lead to the annexation of Texas and the opening of China. Members of the House of Representatives, led by John Quincy Adams, would try to have Tyler impeached for abusing the veto power.

(President John Tyler)

He would be nominated by no party in 1844, and thus retired from office as the first president never to be elected in his own right. During the last years of his life he tried to stop the South from succeeding from the Union; but when he failed, he stood for and was elected to the Congress of the Confederate States of America. He would die before he could serve in that Congress, but he would be the only president to die a traitor. Edward Crapol tells an incredible tale of a president most would find dull.

*Expand slavery and it will disappear.

**Years before he would disgrace himself and the court with Dred Scot.

***The only president in history to be kicked out of his own party.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


A review of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 original) (2003, my copy)

Translated by Gerald Bevan

(Rating 5 of 5)

Alexis De Tocqueville was a French statesman and political theorist who came to America to examine the American prison system in the year 1835. However, while here and touring the country he began something far more interesting, a work known as Democracy in America. In the book*, Tocqueville captures the American character of the Jacksonian Era. Even though it is about our past one can still see elements of our modern character in the work. Even 175 years after it was first published there is a great deal about it that still resonates to this day.

(Alexis de Tocqueville)

Here are some of my favorite Tocqueville quotes:

On America’s youth as a nation, compared to Europe’s,

“America is the only country in which we have been able to watch the natural and peaceful development of a society and define the influence exerted by the origins upon the future of states.
At the time when the European nations landed on the shores of the New World, the feature of their national characters were clearly set; each of them had a distinct appearance; and since they had already produced that level of civilization which leads men to a study of themselves, they have conveyed to us a faithful portrait of their opinions, customs, and laws. Fifteenth-century man is almost as well known to us as we are to ourselves. Thus American highlights what the ignorance or the barbarity of early times has concealed from our gaze.” p.38

Comparing the change from established monarchies into democratic states, to established republics that fall under dictatorship.

“When a monarchy gradually develops into a republic, the executive power retains the titles, honors, respect, and even money long after the reality of power has disappeared. The English, having beheaded one of their kings and dismissed another, still dropped to their knees before the successors of those princes.
On the other hand, when republics fall beneath the yoke of one man, his power continues to appear simple, plain, and modest as if he had not become superior to everyone. When emperors exercised despotic control over the lives and fortunes of their fellow citizens, they were still addressed as Caesar and they were in the habit of dining without formality with their friends.” p.143-4

On how things have changed with wealth and politics, nowadays we complain about the influence of money, but then it seems it appeared to be the opposite.

“Nowadays, one can say that the wealthy classes of United States society stand entirely outside politics and that wealth, far from being an advantage, has become a real source of unpopularity and the obstacle to the achievement of power.
The wealthy thus prefer to abandon the contest rather than tolerate the often unequal struggle against to poorest of their fellow citizens. Since they are unable to occupy a position in the public life similar to the one they enjoy in the private life, they renounce the former to concentrate upon the latter. They represent a private society at the heart of the state with its own tastes and pleasures.” p.208

On the Europeans treatment of the Native Americans and the negative consequences for the latter,

“The European introduced firearms, iron, and whiskey to the indigenous tribes of North America; they taught them to substitute our cloth for the barbaric clothes with which the simple Indians had been previously satisfied. Although acquiring new tastes, the Indians did not learn the skills necessary to satisfy them and they had to have recourse to the industry of the whites. In return for these goods, which they could not make for themselves, these wild tribes had nothing to offer but the rich furs still found in their forests. From that moment hunting not only their own needs but also the frivolous enthusiasms of Europeans.” p.377

On Jackson and the American Republic,

(President Jackson)

“Some Europeans have formed an opinion of General Jackson’s possible influence over his country’s affairs which appears most exaggerated to those who have seen events close hand.

I have heard that General Jackson has won battles, that he was a man of energy, prone to use of force by character and habit, covetous of power, and tyrannical by inclination. All that may be true but the inferences to be drawn from these truths are very wide of the mark.

General Jackson is supposed to working for the institution of a military regime and the extension of central power, which would be a treat to regional liberties. In America, the time for such undertakings and the age of such men have not yet come: if General Jackson had wished for such domination, he would undoubtedly have forfeited his political position and jeopardized his life. So, he has not been rash enough to attempt it.

Far from wishing to extend federal power, the present President belongs to the opposite party which aims to restrict this power to the clearest and most precise letter of the Constitution and which will never allow any interpretation to be favorable to the Union Government. Far from appearing as the champion of centralization, General Jackson the spokesman of regional jealousies; people’s passion for decentralization (if I may put it so) carried to him the sovereign power. By constantly flattering these passions, he maintains his position and his popularity. General Jackson is the slave of the majority: he follows its every wish, desire, and half reveled instincts, or rather he guesses what it wants and takes the lead himself.” p.461-2

On American behavior,

“In the United States, there is very little difference of rank in civil society and none at all in political life. Thus, an American does not believe that he is obliged to show any particular considerations, nor does he dream of demanding any of himself. Since he fails to see that it is to his advantage eagerly to seek out the company of some of his fellow citizens, he has difficulty in imaging that his own company is unwelcome. Since he despises no one for their social status, he cannot imagine that anyone will despise him for the same reason and until he becomes aware of an insult, he does not believe that an insult was intended.” p.658

Continuing on that subject,

“I have noticed many times that it is not an easy matter in the United States to convey to someone that his presence is unwelcome. To make that point, roundabout methods are not always enough.

If I contradict an American at every turn, in order to show him that his conversation bores me, at every moment I see him making renewed efforts to convince me. If I remain obstinately silent, he imagines that I am reflecting deeply on the truths he is putting to me.

When, at last, I escape his onslaught, he supposes that urgent business calls me elsewhere. This man will never grasp that he exasperates me unless I tell him so and I shall be unable to get rid of him except by becoming his mortal enemy.” p.658-9

On Americans in foreign places,

“Almost every American wishes to claim some connection by birth to the first founders of the colonies and America is awash, as far as I can see, with offshoots of great English families.

When a wealthy American lands in Europe, his first concern is to surround himself with the luxuries of wealth; he has such great fear of being taken for the unsophisticated citizen of a democracy that he seeks a hundred roundabout ways each day to advertise a fresh image of his opulence. He usually lodges in the most fashionable part of the town and has an endless stream of servants around him.” p.660

On Americans with foreigners,

“In their relations with foreigners, Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism and appear greedy for praise. The flimsiest compliment pleases them and the most fulsome rarely manages to satisfy them; they plague you constantly to make praise themselves. Doubting their own worth, they could be said to need a constant illustration of it before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, it is also restless and jealous. I grants nothing while making endless demands. It begs on moment and quarrels the next.

If I say to an American that the country he lives in is beautiful, he answers: ‘True enough. There is not its like in the world!’ I admire the freedom enjoyed by its citizens and he answers: ‘Freedom is indeed a priceless gift, but very few nations are worthy of enjoying it.’ If I note the moral purity which prevails in the United States, he says: ‘I realize that a foreigner, struck by the corruption in all the other nations, will be surprised by the sight.’ Finally, I leave him to his contemplation; but he comes back at me an d refuses to leave me until he has prevailed upon me to repeat what I just said. A more intrusive and garrulous patriotism would be hard to imagine. It wearies even those who respect it.” p.710

Tocqueville opens up an interesting perception to our country’s past though eyes of a foreigner who was there. It is interesting both where he is right and wrong. There are times where he is extremely insightful about America and her future, such as predicting that the United States will continue to grow and expand to the other side of the continent. Other times he is very wrong, such as saying that the American government will continue to decentralize. I highly recommend this work for the incredible insights it offers into the era.

*The work was actually published in two parts one in 1835 and the other in 1840.

Friday, July 16, 2010


A review on Robert V. Remini’s The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Andrew Jackson changed the face of the Republic; his election would signify the new reality that any American man* could be president. He was he first person of common humble origins to elected to the highest office. Jackson was the first president not be from the original thirteen colonies, and the first time the nation had turned to a ‘Westerner**’. He is the only president to have his own time period named after him, the ‘Jacksonian Era.’ Until Andrew Jackson came on the scene ‘democracy’ was a negative word similar to ‘anarchy’. Jackson changes all that making the republic the possession of the common people. Robert Remini does an incredible job displaying the good and bad of this incredible figure.

Jackson never knew his father, because he died while the future president was still in his mother’s womb. Jackson, at the age thirteen, joined the American Revolution, during which he was captured. As a prisoner of war, he refused to clean a British officer’s boots and consequently had his face slit open.

Jackson grew to manhood in the frontier he became a county lawyer and judge, dealing out harsh justice that the frontier expects. He would start a plantation that would ultimately become the Hermitage, and at this time, he would commit the horrible sin of slavery by acquiring slaves. He would fight in duels, most famously the fatal duel with Charles Dickinson. The Dickinson duel occurred because Dickinson insulted Rachel Jackson. What happened involving his wife was embarrassing, they had already married and then they found out her divorce from her first husband was invalid, so they had to remarry. This would be used against the Jacksons for the rest of their lives.

(Rachel Jackson)

(Dickerson duel)

Jackson became involved in politics, serving at the Tennessee Constitutional Convention. He would later go one to be elected one of the state's first U.S. Representatives and then a U.S. Senator. Jackson found that he hated the Senate and resigned to gain a seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Jackson would gain the colonelcy of the Tennessee State Militia, and this would be the jumping point to a military career that earned him the nickname ‘Old Hickory.’

Remini describes a military career of incredible success. When the War of 1812 breaks out, the Creek Nation erupts into a civil war and as a result. Pro-British Creeks attack American settlements, and Jackson is sent to stop them. He and the men under his command, some of them were Native American allies, routed the Creeks. At then end of the war***, Jackson had one the greatest American military victories at the Battle of New Orleans.

(General Andrew Jackson)

“Hours earlier the battle in front of the Rodriguez Canal had ended. The entire assault had taken hardly more than two hours, the principal attack lasting only thirty minutes. When the grim business of counting the dead was done, the figures showed 13 American dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing in action on January 8. British causalities amounted to 2,037, of which 291 were killed, 1,262 wounded, and 484 captured or missing.” p.104

During the Monroe administration, in response to Spanish influenced incursions on the South by the Seminole Nation, Jackson was sent to stop the raids. Jackson went further then his orders indicated and apparently, James Monroe did not really seem to care! However, it might have been plausible deniability for President Monroe was rather pleased by his progress.

(President James Monroe)

The election of 1824 was known as the battle of the giants with the single Democratic-Republican Party coming apart with fragments each rallying around each factions' chosen champion. When the votes were counted, Andrew Jackson had won the popular vote**** and he had more electoral votes than any other candidate, but the Constitution mandated a majority of electoral votes, which he did not have. The election was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives where the top three candidates were: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford. However, Henry Clay, who was the Speaker of House, was the fourth place candidate who did not qualify to be in the House consideration. Clay through all of his support behind Adams. Adams was elected and Clay was then made into the new Secretary of State. Considering the short history of that office*****, Jackson ran off screaming ‘corrupt bargain’!

(President John Quincy Adams 'stole' the election of 1824 from Jackson)

(Henry Clay made the 'corrupt bargain' that would kill his chance for the presidency)

Jackson did something no one had ever done before and that is he ‘ran for president’. He traveled built up support for four years and, in 1828, Jackson had a ‘revolution’ where he and his newly named Democratic Party crushed John Quincy Adams’s re-election bid. He would go on a hold the first ‘people’s inaugural’ that led to a great deal of partying and property destruction.

“The inauguration of General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, despite the vulgarity and animal spirits unleashed by the occasion, was one of the great moments in American history. And the reason for this, as everyone agreed, was that it represented in a symbolic way a significant advance in representative government for the American people. Andrew Jackson was the people’s own president –the first such—and that was something wonderful and exciting. Seeing the crowds and hearing them cheer a government that they themselves had called into existence augured well for the future of a democratic society.” p.181-2

(President Andrew Jackson)

Remini then tells the story of Jackson’s historic presidency. The seventh president would use the power of his office like no other before him. His struggle with the bank would prove to be one of the defining moments, not only of the nation’s history, but in the office of the President of the United States.

(Critics referred to Jackson as King Andrew I for his use of executive power)

“Indeed, Jackson’s Bank veto is the most important veto ever issued by a President. Its novel doctrines advanced the process already in train by which the presidency was transformed and strengthened. To begin with, Jackson accomplished something quite unprecedented by writing this veto. Previous Presidents had employed the veto a total of nine times. In forty years under the Constitution only nine acts of Congress had been struck down by the chief executive, and only three of these dealt with important issues. In every instance the President claimed that the offending legislation violated the Constitution. It was therefore generally accepted that the question of a bill’s constitutionality was the only reason to apply a veto. Jackson disagreed. He believed that a President could kill a bill for any reason—political, social, economic, or whatever—when he felt it injured the nation and the people.”p.229-30

(Pro-Jackson, Anti-Bank political cartoon)

Another great event was the Nullification Crisis, in which, Jackson acted to save the Union establishing precedent for his future successor, Abraham Lincoln. Henry Clay acted swift enough to avoid bloodshed, but Jackson established the important precedent. What he had told once told Calhoun over drinks he was now telling to the nation: “The Union Must Be Preserved.”

There is also discussion of Jackson’s failures and bad acts. The’ Petticoat Affair’ that resulted in the entire cabinet leaving and the establishment of the informal kitchen cabinet is discussed. In addition, most disgracefully, Remini writes about the removal of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands to Oklahoma, which is the darkest stain of Jackson’s legacy.

(One of the most shameful acts in U.S. history. Even from a political realist perspective, the indiscriminate Indian removal polices that forced the Cherokee Nation out of Georgia were unjustified and horrific.)

There is also the triumphant reelection of President Jackson over Henry Clay in 1832, the Big Cheese event, and his eventual retirement a brief eight-year post-presidency. Andrew Jackson led and incredible life and Robert Remini did an incredible job consolidating his massive research on Jackson into this one-book biography. I highly recommend this to anyone looking to explore the Jacksonian Era and the life of man who made it.

*at least white American

**Back when being a 'westerner' was possible on east of the Mississippi.

***Actually it was after the war, at least on paper

****First time in the history of the country that the popular vote was counted.

*****Thomas Jefferson had been Washington’s Secretary of State.; James Madison had been Jefferson’s. James Monroe had been James Madison’s; and, John Quincy Adams filled the role for President Monroe.

{Video posted on YouTube by DesertSavy the music is by Johnny Horton.}

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A review of Harry Ammon’s James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971, original) (1991, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

James Monroe, although not our most exciting president, was certainly popular being the last president to run unopposed in the election of 1820. I think there is some debate over whether we can call James Monroe a Founding Father. Although he is certainly of the founding generation, he played only a minor role in founding of the country. He was a company officer in the Army of George Washington, fighting in the famous Battle of Trenton in which Washington and his men crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians after Christmas. He was only president to be on the Anti-Federalist side during the ratification debates. Yet, he is also the president responsible for his famous Monroe Doctrine, and the Era of Good Feelings.

Although this book was written in 1971, my copy (paperback) was not produced until 1991. What is very amusing about this, is in the new preface Harry Ammon states in the first paragraph that there is no difference between the two editions, because in the two decades between them no new information has come out about the life of James Monroe. Unlike Jefferson or Lincoln whom how they are presented can vary wildly between each generation that followed them, poor plain James Monroe is that same as he ever was.

The first few chapters focus on Monroe's youth and education, the book follows his brief military career during the Revolutionary War. Monroe earns the rank of colonel, and recommend by Washington to lead a regiment but the war ends before Monroe's regiment can be raised. Monroe would go on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, and then into the Congress of the Confederation. After the Constitutional Convention wrote a new constitution for the nation to be presented for ratification, Monroe would take the side of the Anti-Federalists in those debates, despite later becoming a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution.

Monroe would try to be elected to First Congress but he would lose to another famous Virginian named James Madison. In 1790, he would earn a seat in the United States Senate; there he would act as a member of the opposition, but in 1794 he was appointed by President Washington to serve as Minster to France. As a foreign minister, he would act in the exact opposite way Washington wanted. His reputation would be so damaged that he had to publish a defense of his actions, which Washington, now retired, bought a copy and critiqued it in the margins.

(President Washington was very disappointed in Monroe.)

“Monroe never saw the comments made by Washington, which would have interested him far more than any others. The former President read Monroe's book carefully, jotting comments in the margin of his copy. These extensive notations, occupying more then forty pages in his printed correspondence, constituted a running argument with the opinions of the former Minister. Washington felt, and in this he was correct, that Monroe had been less then just in his refusal to acknowledge the strict neutrality adopted by the administration. Somewhat less correctly Washington believed that Monroe's subservience to France led him to sacrifice the interests of the United States” p.168

He would then go on to serve as Governor of Virginia, which was an honorable but powerless office. Monroe did oversee the suppression of Gabriel's Rebellion, but his effort to pardon the rebels or at least spare their lives was undermined by the executive council. After his time as governor was over he was sent, by President Jefferson, to Europe to serve as our Minster to the Court of St. James.

(President Jefferson sent Monroe to Europe again.)

“The council after approving his request for six pardons, was divided in October when the Governor proposed to reprieve all who were less deeply involved until the legislature should meet. Without the right to break the tie, Monroe had no alternative then to let the executions take place.” p.188

(Monument to heroes who died fighting for their freedom.)

During his second tour of Europe, Monroe would meet many interesting personalities, most notably, King George III and Napoleon Bonaparte. It is interesting, unlike Jefferson and more like John Adams, Monroe found himself really liking King George III. Monroe was very disappointed in the way the French Revolution was going. It seemed to him that the British Monarchy had principals that were more republican then the French Republic, which soon was not going to a republic.

(King George III, who Monroe surprisingly liked.)

“Monroe naturally looked forward with curiosity to his presentation to the King—a rebel encountering his former sovereign. His long-cherished animosity towards George III was modified by the courtesy of the King's reception. When the American Minister voiced the desire of the President to maintain friendly relations with the two nations, the King, expressing reciprocal sentiments, spoke of the great interest he had taken in the welfare of the United States since the Revolution. After these formal remarks George III inquired about conditions in Virginia, and revealed, to Monroe's surprise, a considerable knowledge of the early history of the College of William and Mary. The only embarrassing moment during the interview occurred when the King queried about the French: 'They have no religion, have they?' After a momentary hesitation Monroe cautiously ventured the opinion that he believed there were many in France, who, indeed, had none. Since this seemed to accord with the King's opinion, the reception ended on an amicable noted. The new Minister felt that the King, at the request of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Hawkesbury, had made a sincere effort to create a friendly atmosphere.”p.225-6

Returning to the United States, he goes on to be Governor of Virginia again, but left soon after Robert Smith had proven to be a disappointment to President James Madison as secretary of state. Monroe was then called to fill that role for the country. In next few years, the War of 1812 erupted and the country was invade and Washington D.C. was sacked and burnt. After President Madison fired John Armstrong, Jr. as Secretary of War, he had Secretary Monroe succeed him and therefore be the nation’s war and state chiefs all at the same time. Monroe had served with distinction although what he really wanted a field command. Nevertheless, the country was so pleased with his performance that he was elected President of the United States, over the last Federalist nominee, Rufus King, in 1816.

(President Madison strongly relied on James Monroe in the War of 1812.)

“For the first time the Presidency seemed to be offered as a reward for meritorious service or as an honor bestowed on a respected public servant, rather then as a prize to be carried off by the strongest party in a bitterly fought contest.” p.357

As Monroe took office the United States began what we refer to as the
'Era of Good Feelings,’ because the Federalist Party was now dead, and there was a national consensus in support of President Monroe. During his presidency, we would gain the Florida as a territory; adopt a new code for the Flag of the United States, with thirteen stripes for the original colonies and stars to represent the states. The most important foreign policy accomplishment was enacted with the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Americas off limits to further colonization and recolonization from European powers. He was reelected without opposition in 1820*, however since no one else ran there was a record low voter turn out. When Monroe declined to run in 1824, that year marked one of the most contested elections of all, which would restore the country's two party system.

“The Monroe Doctrine has had a long and varied history as the keystone of American policy toward Latin America. Only in recent times has it faded into the background, as a result of the imperial connotations attached to it. Most of these subsequent developments were not contemplated by Monroe; if he had guessed at them, he would indeed have been alarmed.” p.491

(President James Monroe)

The end of the book focuses on his quite post-presidency, that would only last six years of him leaving the White House. Monroe's legacy would, on occasion, in the chaos that was going to come would often be one of nostalgia. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more or anything about our nation's fifth president.

*However he did not get a unanimous vote in the Electoral College, because William Plummer, who did not like Monroe, did not want to see anyone but Washington get that honor.

{Video taken from the History Channel.}

Monday, July 12, 2010


A review of Drew R. McCoy’s The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & the Republican Legacy (1989)

(Rating 3 of 5)

In this work, Drew McCoy traces James Madison towards the end of his life. Madison is the only one left, Jefferson has been gone for over half a decade and James Monroe has been gone for just that. The nation that they built is being run by a new generation, it is larger, it is more powerful, and it is, strangely enough, even more divided. Yet, Madison is as active as ever, the former president, finds himself getting back into the political arena to fight again. The issues drive Madison, nullification is the primary target, and Madison himself feels somewhat responsible for this, since the nullifiers quote his work. He also tries to find a solution to the slavery problem and wipe it out forever. One of these he is incredible helpful the other he is not.

The nullifiers, looking for support, had approached Madison, but Madison would have none of it. The nullifiers had thought he would be on their side, since it was his earlier work they were quoting. McCoy shows that Madison took them head on writing letter after letter and paper after paper, trying to convince the American people that the nullifiers were completely wrong about their position.

“Nullification defied more. However, than the irrefutable history of the formation of the regime; it contravened as well the fundamental tenet of republican government: that the will of the majority must ultimately prevail. On the ground of principal alone, Madison reflected a theory that implied that a single state ‘may arrest the operation of a law of the United States, and institute a process which is to terminate in the ascendancy of a minority over a large majority, in a Republican System, the characteristic rule of which the major will is the ruling will.’” p.136

As a result, the nullifiers would turn on Madison; they would insult him, belittle his accomplishments, or try to say he was too old to understand his own self. Fortunately for Madison, over the years he inspired many people, some of whom became public servants themselves and would fight for him and his cause.

“Perhaps Madison braved a wry grin as he read the report of the Brodnax speech in the Enquirer. But if he were in a mood to relish irony, he must have enjoyed much more the comments of delegate Wallace, who blasted the youthful arrogance of Madison’s many detractors. ‘His commentary on his own Report,’ the delegate from Fauquier County complained, ‘has been tauntingly spoken of as a mere letter, by those who were in the feebleness of infancy, when this venerable sage, in the vigor of his perfect manhood, stood on the battlements of constitutional liberty, their ablest and most successful defender.’ It seemed, Wallace quipped, that ‘the order of nature is reversed: Youth has become the season of wisdom and experience, and age the period of rashness, ambition, and folly.’” p.154-5

(President Madison)

While he was good on nullification, he was bad the cause of abolition. Although to quote a later U.S. President, Madison’s errors were of his judgment not his intent. In order to rid the world of slavery he would support two ideas that he felt would solve the problem. In Madison’s estimation slavery was most oppressive in areas where the free to slave ratio favored the slaves and least oppressive when slave population was very small. This is why slavery was easily rid of in the Northern states, because their slave populations were small, and slavery was even more oppressive in the Caribbean than the American South, because their free populations were small. White settlers moving west not being allowed to take any the slave population with them was making the White population the minority in some areas. The solution, according to Madison, was diffusion and colonization. Allowing the slavery to be legal in the old Southwest, would shrink the slave population in each state allowing slavery to disappear. The former slaves would be allowed to form their own country by building a colony in Africa. Both these ideas were foolish and unrealistic but Madison really believed in them, it was Madison at his worst. Fortunately, others, like General Lafayette, saw through the ridiculous idea.

“But Lafayette would not buy this bill of goods, even from Jefferson. He politely but firmly demurred: ‘Are you Sure, My dear Friend, that Extending the principle of Slavery to the New Raised States is a Method to facilitate the Means of Getting Rid of it? I would Have thought that By Spreading the prejudices, Habits, and Calculations of planters over a larger Surface You Rather Encrease the difficulties of final liberation.’” p.270

(General Lafayette)

McCoy presents a window into the last years of a legend who is still fighting for the nation that he had help found. Madison is probably one of the most under appreciated historical figures. The United States owes to him a great deal, for the Republic might not have stood without him. However, with that written, McCoy’s Last of the Fathers is only for advanced readers, who must really enjoy James Madison and constitutional theory. This is a book for graduate students in constitutional studies.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


A review of Robert Allen Rutland’s James Madison: The Founding Father (1987)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Although my personnel favorite Founding Father is Alexander Hamilton, I find it very hard not to like James Madison. The title of this book declares Madison to be the Founding Father, now I do not think that is fair to the others but he is arguably one of the most important. Although not very relevant during the battles for independence itself, Madison was involved in the nation’s affairs since the beginning. He was active from his election to state legislature in 1776 to his battles, as a former president, with the nullifiers in the 1830s. Madison’s footprint can be seen it almost every major event of his life.

Rutland’s story begins with James Madison in New York, prepared to begin working on The Federalist Papers before switching back to the American Revolution. Madison’s first bid for pubic office fails but his eventually elected in 1776 to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, his physically illnesses prevented from taking a military role but he would dedicate his time as a political actor supporting the cause of independence. He was known as Thomas Jefferson’s protégé and would often do battle with Patrick Henry over freedom of religion.

(Young James Madison)

(Patrick Henry, rival)

(Thomas Jefferson, mentor and ally)

Madison would be elected, by the Virginia state legislature, to serve as a member of the Confederation Congress. There he would earn a larger reputation of coalition building, and someone who could get things done.

After the war, Madison, like others, was horrified at the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Meeting at Mount Vernon, with Washington and others, they tried to devise a plan to save the Union. After Shay’s Rebellion, it was obvious that change was necessary. When the Constitutional Convention was called for in Philadelphia, Madison played such a large role, that he would be regarded as the ‘Father of the Constitution’.

Writing the Constitution was one thing, getting it approved was another. Forming and alliance with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, they began writing The Federalist Papers. They all took the pen name ‘Publius’ and from there, they attacked the Anti-Federalist position with utter brilliance.

(John Jay, co-author)

(Alexander Hamilton, co-author)

"Madison’s first contribution became his masterpiece. All of the twenty-nine manuscripts Madison wrote for the series have been lost, so there is no telling how many times he drafted The Federalist #10 or any other essay. He had used the language of #10 before, and at the Philadelphia convention. Hamilton himself had spoken of ‘separate interests [that] will arise. There will be debtors & Creditors &c.’ Thus the essay was an amalgam of ideas then current among the men who read David Hume, Adam Smith, and other writers of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. Madison gave an American twist to his distillation, as historian Douglass Adair later discerned. Perhaps Madison took Hume too literally—‘the same causes always produce the same effects’—but he was trying to disprove Montesquieu’s axiom that that a republican government could not operate effectively in a large geographical area. Hence the reverse judgment in The Federalist #10, that all systems of government for an ‘extended republic’ a republican form was best. Factions had caused the downfall of past republics, small and large, and Madison defended the Constitution as a means of declawing factions while preserving order.” p.30-1

When the Constitution was passed, James Madison was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he would serve from 1789-1797. He would pen the Bill of Rights that later became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. He would also draft, for President Washington, the President’s first address to the Congress and Congress’s response.

(President Washington)

“When Madison seemed about to denounce slavery as a cancer in the nation’s body politic requiring drastic surgery, he was called up short by fellow Southerners. Raised eyebrows in the South Carolina and Georgia delegations, as well as among his Virginia colleagues, forced Madison to tread softly. Like most of his southern friends who detested slavery in the abstract but enjoyed the fruits of slave labor in their own backyards, Madison was reluctant to do battle on the slavery issue. Besides, that 1808 ban on slave trade, written into the Constitution promised a healthy change within two decades. If a citizen wanted to believe that the slavery problem would melt away in a decade of so, all they had to do was point to the Constitution and its shimmering ‘1808 clause’ that implied all kinds of restrictions on the abominable human traffic. It remained a secret whether Madison believed that clause represented some kind of indelible pledge or simply was one way of avoiding a frightening problem.” p.70

It was during this time that he fell in love with and married Dolley Payne Todd. Although they would have no children together, they would be one of the greatest couples that the capital of the United States had ever scene.

(Dolly Madison, wife)

However, Congressman Madison soon found himself leading an opposition against the Washington Administration, because he felt that Alexander Hamilton’s programs gave to much power to the Federal government. Locking horns with the President and his cabinet, Madison would focus his energies getting the former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, elected president over Vice President John Adams in 1796. They failed and Adams was elected, but Jefferson was elected to be the vice president.

Madison’s in-between office holding years were spent writing political propaganda against the Adams Administration. He would, in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts co-author, to his later regret, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. States-rights advocates would take up these resolutions, falsely, as proof of nullification.

In 1800, Jefferson won the presidential election, although the election would fall to the House of Representatives due to the actions of the eventual vice president, Aaron Burr. When Jefferson became the third President of the United States, he appointed Madison the new Secretary of State.

In this position, Madison soared. The Jefferson Administration was able to purchase the entire Louisiana Territory from Napoleon’s France. Madison also had some unintended success in the decision Mayberry v. Madison where Jefferson and Madison technically ‘won’ but the Supreme Court secured the power of judicial review. In a major difference on Constitutional law, Jefferson thought the Supreme Court's newly secured power was bad, but Madison actually liked the idea.

The Embargo Act of 1807, crippled the economy, and gave a soar taste for last year of the Jefferson Administration. Nevertheless, James Madison was able to secure the presidential nomination and, in 1808, was elected president defeating Charles C. Pinckney.

(President James Madison)

His presidency was a mixed legacy; the United States got itself into a war it did not handle very well. Madison had abolished the National Bank* only to have that action undermine the war effort. They had to then re-establish the National Bank in the middle of a war. The capital was lost, and White House and Capitol destroyed**. Also, there was an adverted succession crisis considering that both Madison’s vice presidents died before the end of their term. Although, Baltimore was held and Generals Jackson and Harrison had been able to defeat most of the British Native American allies in the South and West, the war was not his proudest moment. After the war was over, there was a general feeling that America had won its independence again. This made Madison really popular, and in 1816, Madison's chosen successor, James Monroe, was elected to succeed him.

“America was now a nation. Further negotiations with England would be necessary to settle unmarked boundary lines, but British diplomats treated their American cousins far differently after the Battle of New Orleans. The humiliating tribute paid to the Dey of Algiers came to an explosive end when the American navy pounded the Barbary Coast so thoroughly that the once arrogant ruler sued for peace. America had no direct interest in the Congress of Vienna that met in 1815, but the accords reached there prevented another outbreak like the Napoleonic wars and postponed for a century further quarrels over the American claim that ‘free ships make free goods.’ Then another Princeton graduate in the White House would revive Madison’s main argument for neutral rights.” p.233

In the twilight years of his life, Madison would come out of his retirement to do battle with the nullifiers. The nullifers were those who wanted to impose state sovereignty over the Constitution of the United States. Madison would spend the rest of his days writing articles against them.

(Madison in retirement)

This Madison biography delves into some of the most interesting details in the life of James Madison. Rutland does a good job explaining to the reader what is going in each of these chapters. The narrative flows smoothly enough to be enjoyed all readers.

*Something Jefferson himself decided not to do.

**Dolley Madison earning some fame here saving irreplaceable national treasures.

{Video is from the History Channel documentary: First Invasion the War of 1812}