Sunday, October 14, 2012


A review of LaWanda Cox’s Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership (1981 original, 1994 my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

During the civil rights movement that—ironically—climaxed during the one hundredth anniversary the Civil War (1961-1965) many scholars began to challenge President Lincoln’s commitment to freedom.  Often these scholars would lack understanding of civil war politics, use anachronisms, and present the emancipation narrative as Lincoln vs. the Radicals as opposed to Lincoln having to deal with the multiple forces, some often stronger than the radicals.  In 1981, the year I was born, LaWanda Cox shattered the revisionist view with this work detailing how Lincoln’s Reconstruction ideas evolved, and how the cause to equality in the nineteenth century was blown when John Wilkes Booth made Andrew Johnson the president.  

I decided to read this book because it is cited so often in other Civil War books that I have read, most notable in Eric Foner’s Reconstruction.  The consequence to reading a book so often cited was that the first four chapters were just review for me because I have been exposed to this information so often before.  The final chapter was more fascinating a direct comparison and contrast with the Lincoln and A. Johnson Administrations.
            “Lincoln had recognized the historic challenge.  He was prepared to implement, so far as he would find practicable, ‘the principle that all men are created equal.’  The nature of presidential leadership helped shape events, and the leadership of Andrew Johnson and of Lincoln diverged markedly. Johnson lacked Lincoln’s political skill, finesse, and flexibility; more importantly, he did not face in the same direction.  Lincoln would expand freedom for blacks; Johnson was content to have their freedom contained.” (p.150)
In 1861, history met man and moment when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the President of the United States, in 1865 history missed when Andrew Johnson succeeded him.  Johnson’s presidency was in every way a disaster undermining progress and sending the country so far back racially that it would take a hundred years to overcome it. (By 'overcome it' I mean Johnson's regressed progress, not racism). Andrew Johnson is an another reason to hate John Wilkes Booth.  

Monday, October 8, 2012


A review of Ronald C. White Jr.’s A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Written in time for President Lincoln’s bicentennial year, Ronald White's new Lincoln biography tells the story of the Nation’s sixteenth president.  The book that this one is most compared to is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln from 1995.  I like both of these works.  Donald prepared more information on Lincoln and the world around him, while White has smother narrative that is strong enough for someone who reads a great deal of history but not overwhelming for a newcomer.  Both are good they are just different.  A. Lincoln is the story of this most remarkable American, who did not hunt vampires.

One of the main focuses of this book is how President Lincoln redefined the role of commander-in-chief.  White points out that even presidents who had military background did not have a large role as commander-in-chief, and the two wars that were fought after the Constitution was established (1812 and Mexican-American) Presidents Madison and Polk managed the politics at home while they allowed their generals to have a free hand running the military aspect war.  Lincoln was a different commander-in-chief, he handled both the politics at home and closely oversaw the military aspect as well.  Lincoln had a mission for the military and he was going to see it through. 
Lincoln as the President

            “Lincoln quickly learned that his own military leaders were often the greatest obstacles to military policy.  The professional military leaders, almost all graduates of West Point, were trained for the battlefield.  Used to operating within a chain of command that did not include political leaders, and certainly not the president, many did not take kindly to Lincoln’s growing involvement in what they saw as their field of expertise.  As Lincoln would become more and more a hands-on commander in chief, tensions with some of his military leaders would grow.
            Lincoln began to insist that he as president was the first and last authority in setting military policy.  Critics railed that he was expanding the power of the presidency, some going so far as labeling him a ‘dictator.’  Perhaps the greatest irony, some said, was that thirty years before a young Lincoln had joined the bitter criticism against ‘King Andrew’ Jackson—calling him a dictator.  Now Lincoln had selected the old general’s portrait to hand in his office.  But it needs to be remembered that Lincoln followed three weak and ineffectual presidents.  The odor of Buchanan’s indecision in the year leading up to the Civil War still stuck in the nostrils of Washington politicians, even in Buchanan’s own Democratic Party.” (p.411)

Lincoln as a more active commander-in-chief

President Lincoln would dismiss general after general until he finally got the man he wanted in Ulysses S. Grant.  When Lincoln finally had a general whose philosophy was identical to his own, he let loose his grip on the day-to-day operations of the army.  He still expanded his powers as president in many ways, most famously, with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln would dump general after general until he found the man he wanted in Grant

One of the things I like about this book in terms of style is the set-up of the pictures, maps, and illustrations.  I wish publishers would do this more; the pictures are located within the text not collectively gathered and stuck in the book in some random separate section.  This allows the material to become part of the narrative instead of some random add-on.

I really enjoyed this book.  A. Lincoln is a good starting point for people who would like to gain a greater understanding of the man who is arguably the greatest President of the United States.  His story is interesting enough without having to make stuff up in order to bolster it.        

(Video is from a preview of the new Lincoln movie coming in November, which I swear I will watch so many times I will be able to say all the lines along with the characters.)


Friday, October 5, 2012


A review of Joel Silbey’s Martin Van Buren: And the Emergence of Popular Politics (2002)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Martin Van Buren is the first President of the United States to be born an American citizen.  As a natural born American he had a different view of his country than many of his predecessors.  This was a view of America from the ground up.  He saw the country as it was not what the makers wanted to be.  Van Buren was not afraid of the concept of popular democratic participation and, in fact, embraced it.  He was our first president who was a natural politician.
“To the Van Burnenites, on the other hand, political parties were not threatening to the American nation.  They did not corrupt society or its politics.  Contrary to established belief, they were necessary, proper, and, in fact, a positive good in the existing political environment.” (p.26) 
Van Buren on the road to power
Silbey’s book shows Van Buren coming to power at a time when the parties were in complete flux.  The Federalists had been vanquished, although Van Buren always felt they were on the way back, the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson was only game in town.  However with the divisive election of 1824, America would see a change in party alignment.

President Jackson's Van Buren's strongest ally

Van Buren emerges as the political mastermind of the Jacksonian movement, leading a relentless campaign against John Quincy Adams. Jackson would emerge as the winner in the election of 1828.  Van Buren was persuaded to resign his recently elected position as Governor of New York in order to become the U.S. Secretary of State.  Rising up through the Jackson Administration he displaces Calhoun as Vice President at the first ever Democratic National Convention in 1832.  In 1836, he is elected to replace Jackson. 

President Martin Van Buren
From there everything goes downhill. The economics policies of the Jackson Administration helped usher in an economic depression that severely hurt Van Buren’s reelection chances.  In fact it could be argued that President Van Buren was the first president ever to be denied re-election due to economic circumstances.
Van Buren was an architect of Democratic Party populism.  The same methods Van Buren used to get Jackson and himself elected President were also used to undermine his presidency.  The tactics that the Democrats used to dislodge John Quincy Adams from the White House were turned on him.  The Whigs had their own popular military hero from the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, and were able to portray Van Buren as an out of touch elitist.  That was the same strategy the Democrats used against Adams in favor of Jackson, but this time Martin Van Buren was the target.
William Henry Harrison, Van Buren's opponent in both 1836 and 1840
The election of 1840 was not the last time Van Buren’s own ideas came back to haunt him.  In 1832 the first Democratic National Convention issued a two-thirds rule requiring that a candidate to be nominated only if he had two-thirds of the delegates[1].  This was great for Van Buren in 1832, 1836, and 1840 where the President enjoyed clear support all over the party.  In 1844 however the former President could only muster a majority of the delegates.  In addition, his agreement with Henry Clay to keep Texas out of the national political conversation opened up Van Buren and Henry Clay to being part of a corrupt bargain, the second of Clay’s career.  Van Buren had been one of the people to accuse Clay and Adams of the first one in 1824, now Van Buren was on the other side of the coin.  That made it impossible to win any more support and worse it cost him Andrew Jackson’s.  With only a majority of the delegates and too many hardliners against him, the nomination went to James K. Polk of Tennessee.  As the first former president to attempt to regain the office, his efforts ended in failure[2].

Van Buren ran again in 1848 shocking everyone when the preacher of party discipline bolted from his party to the free-soil party.  He would be the first of three presidents to attempt a comeback in this manner.  It stood no chance but Van Buren got his revenge at the Democrats, who in his mind betrayed him, by throwing the election to the Whigs, electing Zachary Taylor over Lewis Cass.

Joel Silbey’s book is small and easy to read.  It is a good starting point for anyone who would like to know something about our eight president. Van Buren was quite a trailblazer but every new political weapon he could find was then used against him.  He in many ways was his own worst enemy.       

[1] This would not be overturned until 1936.                    
[2] Only Grover Cleveland,in 1892, was ever able to successfully regain the office.

(Video from the PBS American Presidents series)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


A review of Merrile D Peterson’s The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987)

(Rating 4 of 5)

In my earlier review of the Last Crusade I discussed how often unsuccessful presidents are in many respects successful statesmen.  This also holds true for even those great statesmen (and stateswomen) that fall short of the presidential honor.  My home state of Maine’s Ed Muskie would clearly qualify as a great statesman in the eyes of most Mainers.  Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun were three of the most prominent men of their era.  Each had a mass following in their respective region: Webster the Northeast, Clay the West, and Calhoun the South. 

Despite their large followings none of these men would ever reach the highest point in American politics, to be President.  Like Muskie, each one these statesmen would become Secretary of State and Webster would be hold that post twice.  At the start of the Republic good service in that office almost guaranteed the presidency[1].  Calhoun would become the Vice President, and Clay, among the three, would have the best chance of winning the coveted office, but all would fail. 
John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster
This book, covering political careers of all three, does a fairly good job of its task.  Although it can get convoluted at times, reading a duel biography is hard enough a trio-biography is very difficult.  However, the author does a good job staying on task.  There are moments where Peterson’s clear worship of these three gets a bit nauseating.
            “In 1832, when they came together in the Senate for the first time and coalesced in opposition to the president, Andrew Jackson, the idea of ‘The Great Triumvirate’ was born.  It was the offspring of the feverish Jacksonian imagination, for the prospect was very small of these master spirits—Webster, Clay, Calhoun—uniting in power like the famed Roman triumvirs who ruled after Caesar’s death.  Yet had they become a triumvirate in fact, what worlds they might have conquered!” (p.5)   
Clay and Webster, in my eyes, have very positive legacies.  There were things that they did and positions that they took that I strongly disagree with—the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, for example—but over all I believe the two were positive forces in our nation’s history.  However, if one would take a more position, that person could argue all Clay and Webster really did was delay important issues repeatedly to the next generation instead of dealing with it themselves.  I think that Clay and Webster did the best they could with the situation that they were given.  
Compromise of 1850
The third member however is a different story.  Generally speaking I tend to judge historical figures by the standards of their own time not ours.  If I did the later, and was honest with myself, I would have to say everyone who ever made major decisions in the world was evil until I enter High School then it was just most of them.  However, in American history, there are four historical figures that I completely despise and John C. Calhoun is one of them[2]

I find absolutely no redeemable traits in Calhoun.  The only nice thing I can say about the man was if I had died in 1823 his death would have gone down as a tragic loss of a young great statesman.  Unfortunately, he lived into the 1850s and became the champion of all that was wrong with America at that time: slavery, nullification, and secession. An American villain if there ever was one.
“And so Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, the legitimate successors of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, never attained the presidency.  When the last of this ‘second race of giants’ passed away in 1852 nothing was left to challenge the sway of Lilliputians.  The republic lost its glory—the regalia of great statesmen.” (p.6)
I totally disagree with the above statement.  I am sorry but there were plenty of great statesmen to follow them.  I really do not feel these three were Founders’ natural successors.  Do not get me wrong they had their accomplishments.  Their end, however, was not the end of great statesmen.  In fact if you read Team of Rivals you can see the next generation of leaders was, in many ways, superior to this group. 
This book can be a very tough read so I would only recommended if you really love history and the time period.  In closing I am a little reminded of King William III of England and Holland who led coalitions against King Louis XIV of France.   King William might have been the thorn in King Louis’ side, but William III lived in the age of King Louis XIV.  Clay, Webster, and Calhoun may have liked to be known as the Triumvirate, but they were just players in the Age of Jackson.

[1] Or in John Marshall’s case the Chief Justice post.
[2] The others are Rodger Taney, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and George Wallace.