Presidents in Retirement: John Tyler

For most of his unexpected Presidency, John Tyler was a President Without a Party. Elected as a Whig in the second position of the party's 1840 ticket with William Henry Harrison, Tyler was in the big chair just over a month into Harrison's term after Harrison's untimely death. President Tyler first had to fight for recognition that he was in fact President, and then he alienated his party to the point that they kicked him out.  Tyler had once been a Democrat, but they didn't want him back because he had left the party once, and they simply didn't trust him. Tyler had contemplated running for re-election as an independent, but decided against it, likely because he though his candidacy would insure the election of his political adversary Henry Clay, and because the Democratic candidate James K. Polk supported Tyler's goal of annexing Texas. 

John Tyler in 1861
John Tyler in 1861

After the election of 1844 and the inauguration of Polk in March of 1845,  Tyler left Washington along with his young wife Julia and the younger ones from Tyler's 15 children. He retired to a Virginia plantation originally named Walnut Grove (or "the Grove"), located on the James River in Charles City County. He renamed it Sherwood Forest, a reference to the folk legend  Robin Hood, because he felt that he had been "outlawed" by the Whig Party.

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Presidents in Retirement: Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren served only one term as President. He lost his bid for re-election largely because the fiscal policies of his predecessor Andrew Jackson had led to a great recession known as the Panic of 1837, and because the Whigs ran a slick campaign against him, painting him as aristocratic and out of touch. At the end of his term, Van Buren returned to his estate of Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New York. He remained interested in political developments, including the battle between the Whig alliance of the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun) and President John Tyler, who took office after William Henry Harrison's death in April 1841. He was coy about making another presidential run, but Van Buren made several moves determined to maintain his support. This included a post-presidential trip to the Southern United States and the Western United States during which he met with Jackson, former Speaker of the House James K. Polk, and others. President Tyler, James Buchanan, Levi Woodbury, and others were the names dropped as potential challengers for the 1844 Democratic nomination, but Van Buren saw Calhoun as his main challenger.

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Van Buren remained silent on major public issues like the debate over the Tariff of 1842. He wanted to arrange for the appearance of a draft movement for his presidential candidacy. When President Tyler made the annexation of Texas his chief foreign policy goal, many Democrats, particularly in the South, were anxious to quickly complete it. After an explosion on the USS Princeton killed Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur in February 1844, Tyler brought Calhoun into his cabinet to direct foreign affairs. Like Tyler, Calhoun pursued the annexation of Texas to extend slavery into new territories.

Shortly after taking office, Calhoun negotiated an annexation treaty between the United States and Texas. Van Buren had hoped he would not have to take a public stand on annexation, but the Texas question came to be a leading issue in U.S. politics. Van Buren decided to make his views on the issue public. On the one hand, he believed that his public acceptance of annexation would likely help him win the 1844 Democratic nomination, but he also thought (correctly as it turned out) that annexation would lead to an unjust war with Mexico. In a public letter published shortly after Henry Clay also announced his opposition to the annexation treaty, Van Buren articulated his opposition to annexation. He wrongly assumed that if he and Clay agreed on the issue, it would become a non-issue. But this move likely cost him a return to the White House.

Van Buren's opposition to immediate annexation cost him the support of many pro-slavery Democrats. In the weeks before the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Van Buren's supporters calculated that he would win a majority of the delegates on the first presidential ballot, but would not be able to win the support of the required two-thirds of delegates. He had lost the support of his mentor Andrew Jackson. Van Buren's supporters attempted to prevent the adoption of the two-thirds rule, but several Northern delegates joined with Southern delegates in implementing the two-thirds rule for the 1844 convention. Van Buren won 146 of the 266 votes on the first presidential ballot, with only 12 of his votes coming from Southern states. Senator Lewis Cass won much of the remaining vote, and he gradually picked up support on subsequent ballots until the convention adjourned for the day. When the convention reconvened and held another ballot, James K. Polk, who shared many of Van Buren's views but favored immediate annexation, won 44 votes. On the ninth ballot, Van Buren's supporters withdrew his name from consideration, and Polk won the nomination. Although he was unhappy with the result, Van Buren endorsed Polk in the interest of party unity. He also convinced Silas Wright to run for Governor of New York so that the popular Wright could help boost Polk in the state. Wright narrowly defeated Whig nominee Millard Fillmore in the 1844 gubernatorial election, and Wright's victory in the state helped Polk narrowly defeat Henry Clay in the 1844 presidential election. It helped that a third party, the Liberty Party, siphoned off some votes from the Whigs in the state.

After taking office, Polk used George Bancroft as an intermediary to offer Van Buren the ambassadorship to London. Van Buren declined, still hurting from the loss of the nomination, and also because he was otherwise content in his retirement. Polk consulted Van Buren in the formation of his cabinet, but offended Van Buren by offering to appoint a New Yorker only to the lesser post of Secretary of War, rather than as Secretary of State or Secretary of the Treasury. Other patronage decisions also angered Van Buren and Wright, and they became alienated from the Polk administration.

In New York state, the Democrats were split between two factions: the Barnburners and Hunkers. Van Buren had tried to maintain a good relationship with both sides, but after the 1844 Democratic convention he became closer to the Barnburners. The split in the state party got worse during Polk's presidency, because his administration doled out more patronage on the Hunkers.

In his retirement, Van Buren also grew increasingly opposed to slavery. As the Mexican–American War brought the debate over slavery in the territories to the forefront of American politics, Van Buren published an anti-slavery manifesto in which he disputed the notion that Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories. He argued that the Founding Fathers had favored the eventual abolition of slavery. The document became known as the "Barnburner Manifesto." After its publication, many Barnburners urged Van Buren to run in the 1848 presidential election. The 1848 Democratic National Convention seated competing Barnburner and Hunker delegations from New York, but the Barnburners walked out of the convention when Lewis Cass, who opposed congressional regulation of slavery in the territories, was nominated on the fourth ballot. Angered by Cass's nomination, the Barnburners began to organize as a third party. They held a convention in June 1848, in Utica, New York, at which they nominated 65-year-old Van Buren for president. Van Buren was reluctant to leave the Democratic Party, but he decided to accept the nomination in order to show the power of the anti-slavery movement.

At a convention held in Buffalo, New York in August 1848, a group of anti-slavery Democrats, Whigs, and members of the abolitionist Liberty Party met in the first national convention of what became known as the Free Soil Party. The convention unanimously nominated Van Buren, and chose Charles Francis Adams (son of late former President John Quincy Adams and grandson of former President John Adams) as Van Buren's running mate. In a public message accepting the nomination, Van Buren gave his full support for the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed law that would ban slavery in all territories acquired from Mexico in the Mexican–American War. Whig Senator Daniel Webster quipped. "if Mr. Van Buren should meet under the Free-soil flag, the latter with his accustomed good-nature would laugh, that the leader of the Free-spoil party suddenly becoming the leader of the Free-soil party is a joke to shake his sides and mine."

Van Buren and the Free Soil Party did not win any electoral votes in the election, but they finished second to Whig nominee Zachary Taylor in New York, taking enough votes from Cass to give the state—and perhaps the election—to Taylor. Overall, Van Buren won 10.1% of the popular vote, the strongest showing by a third-party presidential nominee up to that point in U.S. history.

Van Buren never sought public office again after the 1848 election, but he continued to closely follow national politics. He was deeply troubled by talk of secessionism in the South and he supported the Compromise of 1850 as a necessary conciliatory measure despite his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Van Buren began work on a history of American political parties and embarked on a tour of Europe, becoming the first former U.S. president to visit Britain. Coincidentally, he was in London at the same time as another former President, Millard Fillmore. Van Buren returned to the Democratic fold, fearing that a continuing Democratic split would help the Whig Party. He also tried to reconcile the Barnburners and the Hunkers in New York, with limited success.

Van Buren supported the Democratic candidates for President in the next three elections, and was critical of the Know Nothing Party. He also felt that the anti-slavery Republican Party exacerbated sectional tensions. He considered Chief Justice Roger Taney's ruling in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford to be a "grievous mistake" because it overturned the Missouri Compromise. He was also critical of hos the Buchanan administration handled the issue of Bleeding Kansas.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of several Southern states in 1860, Van Buren unsuccessfully sought to call a constitutional convention. In April 1861, former president Pierce wrote to the other living former presidents and asked them to consider meeting to use their stature and influence to propose a negotiated end to the war. Pierce asked Van Buren to use his role as the senior living ex-president to issue a formal call. Van Buren thought that Buchanan should be the one to call the meeting, since he was the former president who had served most recently. Nothing more resulted from this effort. Once the Civil War began, Van Buren made it cleat that he supported the Union cause.

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Van Buren's health began to fail later in 1861. He was confined to bed because of severe pneumonia during the fall and winter of 1861–1862. He died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate at 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 24, 1862. He is buried in the Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, the resting place of his wife Hannah, his parents, and his son Martin Van Buren Jr. He outlived all four of his immediate successors: (Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor)and at the time he saw more successors ascend to the presidency than anyone else (eight), living to see Abraham Lincoln elected as the 16th President before his death. (Jimmy Carter has seen seven successive Presidents).

Happy Birthday John Quincy Adams

On July 11, 1767 (257 years ago today) John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts. He was the second child and oldest son of John and Abigail Adams.

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Much of Adams' youth was spent accompanying his father overseas. The elder Adams served as an American envoy to France from 1778 until 1779 and to the Netherlands from 1780 until 1782. John Quincy Adams accompanied his father on these trips. Schooled by his father in the art of diplomacy, John Quincy Adams served as an American diplomat, and went on to become a US Senator, and later a member of the House of Representatives. Over the course of his long and distinguished political career he was a member of five political parties: the Federalist, Democratic-Republican, National Republican, Anti-Masonic and Whig parties. He was Minister (Ambassador) to four different countries: the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain. As a diplomat, he played an important role in negotiating many prominent international treaties, the most famous of which was the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.

He served as Secretary of State under President James Monroe, and in that capacity he negotiated with Great Britain over America's northern border with Canada, with Spain concerning the annexation of Florida, and he authored the Monroe Doctrine. Many historians believe that he was one of the greatest diplomats and secretaries of state in American history.

You would think that such a great diplomat would get along with others and become a great President. He succeeded Monroe as President in the disputed election of 1824, finishing second in both popular and electoral vote to Andrew Jackson. The election was decided by Congress in what his opponents called "a corrupt bargain" after Henry Clay threw his support to Adams. Clay later became Secretary of State in the Adams administration.

Adams tried to modernize the American economy and promoted education. Part of his political agenda was to pay off much of the national debt. But he was stymied by a Congress controlled by his opponents, and his lack of patronage appointments didn't endear him to those in his own party. Building political consensus and coalitions was not his strong suit. He lost his 1828 bid for re-election to Andrew Jackson. This made him the first President since his father to serve a single term.

Adams didn't retire from the Presidency quietly. He was elected a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts after leaving office, the only president ever to do so, serving for the last 17 years of his life. In Congress he launched a passionate campaign against slavery, even to the point where gag orders were passed attempting to prevent him from discussing the subject on the floor of the House. He tried to ignore them or find ways around them. He even went so far as to argue a leading anti-slavery case (the Amistad) before the Supreme Court of the United States. Adams correctly predicted that if a civil war was to break out, the president could abolish slavery by using his war powers. Adams also predicted the Union's dissolution over the slavery issue, but said that if the South became independent there would be a series of bloody slave revolts.


On February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives was discussing the matter of honoring US Army officers who had served in the Mexican War. Adams had been opposed to the war because he believed its motive to be the expansion of slavery. When the rest of the house erupted into 'ayes' in support of the motion, Adams cried out, 'No!' He rose to answer a question from the Speaker of the House. He then immediately collapsed, having suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Two days later, on February 23, he died with his wife and son at his side in a bed placed in the Speaker's Room inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. His last words were "This is the last of earth. I am content." He passed away at 7:20 p.m.

Presidents in Retirement: Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson's presidency ended on March 4, 1837, eleven days ahead of his 70th birthday, when his successor, Martin Van Buren, was sworn in as his successor. Jackson left Washington, D.C., three days later, beginning the long journey home, where he would retire to his plantation called "the Hermitage" in Nashville, the site of his present day Presidential Museum. He remained influential in national and state politics and leading Democrats regularly sought his advice. A national recession known as the Panic of 1837 had hit the nation, almost certainly caused by Jackson's banking policies. He had vetoed a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, and ordered the transfer of federal monies to state banks in 1833. This caused western banks to relax their lending standards. His pressing for the Indian Removal Act made large amounts of former Native American lands available for purchase and speculation, and in 1836 his "Specie Circular" policy which mandated western lands only be purchased by money backed by specie (money in the form of coins such as gold or silver). The act was intended to stabilize the economy by reducing speculation on credit, but it caused a drain of gold and silver from the Eastern banks to the Western banks in order to address the needs of financing land transactions. Jackson had also promoted passage of the Deposit and Distribution Act, which transferred federal monies from eastern to western state banks. Together, these policies left Eastern banks unable to pay specie to the British when they recalled their loans to address their economic problems in international trade.


The panic drove the U.S. economy into a depression that lasted until 1841. To reduce the inflation caused by the Panic of 1837, Jackson supported an Independent Treasury system that would restrict the government from printing paper money and require it to hold its money in silver and gold. Jackson's economic policies turned out to be a poisoned chalice for his successor, Van Buren. During the 1840 presidential election, Jackson campaigned for Van Buren in Tennessee, but Van Buren had become too unpopular during the continuing depression. The Whig Party nominee, William Henry Harrison, won the election using a campaign style similar to that of the Democrats: Van Buren was depicted as an uncaring aristocrat, while Harrison's war record was glorified, and he was portrayed as a man of the people. Harrison won the 1840 election and the Whigs captured majorities in both houses of Congress. To add insult to injury, Jackson could not even help Van Buren carry Jackson's home state of Tennessee, which went to the Whigs.

Harrison died a month into his term, and was replaced by his vice president, former Democrat John Tyler. This made Jackson hopeful because Tyler was not bound to party loyalties. Jackson spoke out in favor of Tyler when the new President vetoed two Whig-sponsored bills to establish a new national bank in 1841. But for Tyler, having Jackson' support was not exactly a political asset at the time.

Jackson lobbied for the annexation of Texas. He was concerned that the British could use it as a base to threaten the United States and he insisted that it was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Tyler signed a treaty of annexation in April 1844, but it was not ratified in the Senate because it became associated with the expansion of slavery.

Van Buren, who had been Jackson's preferred candidate for the Democratic Party in the 1844 presidential election, broke with his mentor when he expressed his opposition to the annexation of Texas. Disappointed by Van Buren, Jackson supported the nomination of fellow Tennessean James K. Polk as the Democrats' Vice-Presidential nominee and he was delighted when, at the Democratic Party's Nominating Convention in Baltimore, Van Buren could not gain enough support to win the requisite two-thirds of voting delegates' support require for the nomination, and Polk was ultimately chosen as the party's Presidential candidate. Polk went on to win the general election against Jackson's old enemy, Henry Clay, many believe because of a split in votes in New York state, where the Liberty Party was believed to have drained off votes from the Whigs. The state proved to be the crucial one in the election and it went to Polk.

Jackson had played an important role in Polk's victory, in that he had intervened in convincing John Tyler not to run as an independent candidate (which would have taken votes from Polk) and had convinced Polk supporters not to attack Tyler while Tyler was deciding what role he would play in the election. On the other hand, Jackson lacked influence at home because once again his (and Polk's) home state of Tennessee went to the Whigs in the election of 1844.

Jackson was delighted when, just ahead of Polk's inauguration, the Senate passed a bill to annex Texas, and it was signed on March 1, 1845.

Jackson had his photo taken by Edward Anthony in 1844 or 1845, just months before his death. Anthony traveled to the Hermitage to photograph the former president in a series of daguerreotypes. Matthew Brady copied Anthony's daguerreotype and displayed it in his New York Studio. Jackson is said to have disliked the process and the finished product, claiming that the picture made him look "like a monkey."


Jackson spent his retirement in pool health. He died of dropsy, tuberculosis, and heart failure at 78 years of age on June 8, 1845. Knowing the Jackson was near the end, President Polk had planned a visit with his mentor, but he arrived in Nashville too late. Jackson died surrounded by his family, his enslaved persons, and some friends at his deathbed. His last words are said to have been, "Do not cry; I hope to meet you all in Heaven—yes, all in Heaven, white and black."

Jackson was buried in the same tomb as his wife Rachel at the Hermitage.

Presidents in Retirement: John Quincy Adams

Perhaps one of the most prolific and active retirements of any former Presidents was that of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States. Elected as President in 1824 in a controversial election, (Adams was chosen as President despite finishing second in popular and electoral votes because no candidate had won a majority in the Electoral College), Adams had also won the enmity of first place finished Andrew Jackson, who accused Adams and Henry Clay of concocting a "corrupt bargain" to deny Jackson the prize. When Jackson ran against Adams in 1828, and soundly defeated Adams, the incumbent President left office in the wake of a bitter campaign, filled will personal attacks.

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Adams considered permanently retiring from public life after his 1828 defeat. His troubles were compounded by the suicide of his son, George Washington Adams, in 1829. Adams was appalled by many of the Jackson administration's actions and policies, including its blatant use of the spoils system and the prosecution of Adams' close friend, Treasury Auditor Tobias Watkins, for embezzlement. Once Adams had been a supporter of Jacksons, but now the two men hated each other in the decades after the 1828 election.

Adams likely grew bored with his retirement and still believed that his career was unfinished. It is also likely that he felt he had nothing to lose, and was no longer constrained by the demands of the presidency and the pressures of winning re-election. He could now speak his mind. He ran for and won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in the 1830 elections. His election was in conflict with the the generally held opinion, shared by his own wife and youngest son, that former presidents should not run for public office. This didn't matter to Adams. He would go on to win election to nine terms, serving from 1831 until his death in 1848. (Adams and Andrew Johnson are the only former presidents to serve in Congress.)

After winning election, Adams became affiliated with the Anti-Masonic Party. The National Republican Party's leadership in Massachusetts included many of the former Federalists that Adams had clashed with earlier in his career. The Anti-Masonic Party originated as a movement against Freemasonry, but it developed into the country's first third party.

Adams was 64 years old when he was first elected, and he didn't expect to be called on to do much, but Speaker Andrew Stevenson selected Adams chair of the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures. Though Adams was a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, Congress was broadly polarized into allies of Jackson and opponents of Jackson. It's east to guess which camp Adams sided with. Stevenson was an ally of Jackson, and he had placed Adams on the committee in the hope that this would keep Adams busy defending the tariff, and the Jacksonian majority on the committee would prevent Adams from accruing any real power.

As chair of the committee, Adams was charged with writing tariff laws. He would soon become an important player in the nullification crisis, which arose out if Southern objections to the high rates imposed by the Tariff of 1828. South Carolina leaders argued that states could nullify federal laws, and they announced that they would bar the federal government from enforcing the tariff in their state. Adams helped pass the Tariff of 1832, which lowered rates, but not enough to mollify the South Carolina nullifiers. The crisis ended when Clay and Calhoun agreed to another tariff bill, the Tariff of 1833, that furthered lower tariff rates. Adams was unhappy with the Nullification Crisis's outcome. He thought that the Southern states had unfairly benefited from challenging federal law. Adams believed that Southerners exercised undue influence over the federal government through their control of Jackson's Democratic Party.

In the 1833 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, the Anti-Masonic Party nominated Adams in a four-way race between Adams, the National Republican candidate, the Democratic candidate, and a candidate of the Working Men's Party. The National Republican candidate, John Davis, won 40% of the vote, while Adams finished in second place with 29%. Because no candidate won a majority of the vote, the state legislature decided the election. Rather than seek election by the legislature, Adams withdrew his name from contention, and the legislature selected Davis.

Adams was almost elected to the Senate in 1835, when he had the support of a coalition of Anti-Masons and National Republicans. Ironically, it was his support for Jackson in a minor foreign policy matter that annoyed National Republican leaders. They withdrew their support for his candidacy, and after this Adams never again sought higher office, focusing instead on his service in the House of Representatives.

In the mid-1830s, the Anti-Masonic Party, the National Republicans, and other groups opposed to Jackson banded together to form the Whig Party. In the 1836 presidential election Democrats put forward Martin Van Buren, while the Whigs fielded multiple presidential candidates. Adams found fault with all of the major party contenders for president, so he did not take part in the campaign. Nonetheless, after Van Buren's victory, Adams became aligned with the Whig Party in Congress. Adams opposed most of the initiatives of President Van Buren, though they maintained a cordial public relationship.

The Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution of 1835–1836, Texas had largely been settled by Americans from the south who enslaved people, despite an 1829 Mexican law that abolished slavery. Many in the United States and Texas favored the admission of Texas into the union as a slave state. Adams was more forward-thinking. He became one of the leading congressional opponents of annexation. When he served as secretary of state, Adams had sought to acquire Texas, but he justified this on the basis that Mexico had abolished slavery. He now argued that the acquisition of Texas would transform the region from a free territory into a slave state. He also feared that the annexation of Texas would encourage Southern expansionists to pursue other potential slave states, including Cuba.

Whig nominee William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren in the 1840 presidential election, and the Whigs gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time. Adams had a low opinion of Harrison but he was enthusiastic about the new Whig administration and the end of the long-standing Democratic dominance of the federal government. When Harrison died in April 1841 and was succeeded by Vice President John Tyler, this changed the calculus. Tyler was a Southerner who, unlike Adams, Henry Clay, and many other prominent Whigs, did not embrace the American System. Adams saw Tyler as an agent of what he called "the slave-driving, Virginia, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement". When Tyler vetoed a bill to restore the national bank, Whig congressmen expelled Tyler from the party. Adams was appointed chairman of a special committee that explored impeaching Tyler, and he presented a scathing report of Tyler that argued that Tyler's actions warranted impeachment. The impeachment process did not move forward, though, because the Whigs did not believe that the Senate would vote to remove Tyler from office.

Tyler made the annexation of Texas the main foreign policy priority of his administration, hoping that this might lead to his re-election. Tyler attempted to win ratification of an annexation treaty in 1844, but the Senate rejected the treaty. The annexation of Texas became the central issue of the 1844 presidential election, and Southerners blocked the nomination of Van Buren at the 1844 Democratic National Convention due to the Van Buren's opposition to annexation. The party nominated James K. Polk, a protege of Andrew Jackson. Once again Adams did not take part in the campaigning. He blamed the outcome of the election partly to the Liberty Party, a small, abolitionist third party that may have siphoned votes from Clay in the crucial state of New York. After the election, Tyler, a lame duck President, once again submitted an annexation treaty to Congress. Adams strongly argued against the treaty, correctly predicting that the annexation of Texas would lead the United States into "a war for slavery". Despite Adams's opposition, both houses of Congress approved the treaty, with most Democrats voting for annexation and most Whigs voting against it. Texas joined the United States as a slave state in 1845.

Adams had served with James K. Polk in the House of Representatives, and not surprisingly Polk was another person that Adams loathed. He saw Polk as another expansionist, pro-slavery Southern Democrat in the mold of Jackson. Adams supported the annexation of the entirety of Oregon Country, a disputed region occupied by both the United States and Britain, and was displeased when President Polk signed the Oregon Treaty, which divided the land between the two claimants at the 49th parallel.

When Polk's expansionist aims centered instead on the Mexican province of Alta California, and he attempted to buy the province from Mexico, the Mexican government refused to sell California. It did not even recognize the independence and subsequent American annexation of Texas. Polk deployed a military detachment led by General Zachary Taylor to back up his assertion that the Rio Grande constituted the Southern border of both Texas and the United States. After Taylor's forces clashed with Mexican soldiers north of the Rio Grande, Polk asked for a declaration of war in early 1846, asserting that Mexico had invaded American territory. Both houses of Congress declared war, with the House voting 174-to-14 to approve the declaration. One of the 14 dissenting votes was Adams. He believed that Polk wanted to wage war in order to expand slavery. After the start of the war, Adams supported the Wilmot Proviso, an unsuccessful legislative proposal that would have banned slavery in any territory ceded by Mexico.

After 1846, ill health increasingly affected Adams, but he continued to oppose the Mexican–American War until his death in 1848. Adams was longtime opponent of slavery, Adams used his new role in Congress to fight it. He became the most prominent national leader opposing slavery. He had earlier wrote in his private journal in 1820:

In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim it, and cast it all upon the shoulder of Great Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee's manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?

In 1836, partially in response to Adams's consistent presentation of citizen petitions requesting the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the U.S. House of Representatives imposed a gag rule that immediately tabled any petitions about slavery. Democrats and Southern Whigs favored the rule, but Northern Whigs, like Adams, opposed it. In late 1836, Adams began a campaign against the gag rule. He frequently attempted to present anti-slavery petitions, often in ways that provoked strong reactions from Southern representatives. Although the gag rule remained in place, Adams used it as a vehicle to indirectly debate the morality of slavery. He fought actively against the gag rule for another seven years, eventually moving the resolution that led to its repeal in 1844.


In 1841, at the request of Lewis Tappan and Ellis Gray Loring, Adams joined the case of United States v. The Amistad. Adams went before the Supreme Court on behalf of African slaves who had revolted and seized the Spanish ship Amistad. Adams appeared before the court on February 24, 1841, and spoke for four hours, successfully convincing the court, which ruled that the Africans were free and they returned to their homes.

Adams also became a leading force for the promotion of science. In 1829, British scientist James Smithson died, and he left his fortune for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge". In Smithson's will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an "Establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men". After the nephew died without heirs in 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress of the bequest, which amounted to about US$500,000 (US$18 million in 2024 dollars after inflation). Adams became Congress's primary supporter of the future Smithsonian Institution. The money was invested in shaky state bonds, which quickly defaulted. After a heated debate in Congress, Adams successfully argued to restore the lost funds with interest. Congress accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836. Largely due to Adams's efforts, Congress voted to establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. A nonpolitical board of regents was established to lead the institution, which included a museum, art gallery, library, and laboratory.

In 1846, Adams, now 78 years old, suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. After a few months of rest, he made a full recovery and resumed his duties in Congress. When Adams entered the House chamber on February 13, 1847, everyone rose and applauded. Eight days later, on February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives was discussing the matter of honoring United States Army officers who served in the Mexican–American War. Adams had been a vehement critic of the war, and as Congressmen rose up to say, "Aye!" in favor of the measure, he instead yelled, "No!" He rose to answer a question put forth by Speaker of the House Robert Charles Winthrop, but almost immediately he collapsed, having suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was taken to a bed in the Speaker's Room inside the Capitol. It was there, two days later, on February 23, he died at 7:20 p.m. with his wife at his side. His only living child, Charles Francis, did not arrive in time to see his father alive. His last words were "This is the last of Earth. I am content". Among those present for his death was future president Abraham Lincoln, then a freshman representative from Illinois.


Adams' original interment was temporary, in the public vault at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Later, he was interred in the family burial ground in Quincy, Massachusetts, across from the United First Parish Church, called Hancock Cemetery. After Louisa's death in 1852, his son had his parents re-interred in the expanded family crypt in the United First Parish Church across the street, next to John and Abigail. Both tombs are viewable by the public. Adams's original tomb at Hancock Cemetery is still there and marked simply "J.Q. Adams".

Remembering Zachary Taylor

The story goes that a mixture of bad cherries and milk supposedly caused the death of President Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850, (174 years ago today). It was on that date that Taylor, the 12th President of the United States, died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 65. He was the second president to die in office (coincidentally, both the first and second such were former generals in their sixties and they were the only two Whig candidates to be elected president.) Taylor served as President for just over sixteen months, from March 1849 until his death. Often underestimated by his adversaries, both military and political, I believe that Taylor would have been a good President, had he lived to complete at least one term in office.


Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family. His ancestors had come to the United States aboard the Mayflower. His father, Richard Taylor, had served as a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution, and his second cousin was James Madison. As a youth his family left Virginia and settled near Louisville, Kentucky.

On May 3, 1808 Taylor joined the U.S. Army, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant. Taylor was a career officer in the Army, rising to the rank of major general. He fought in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War, but gained national status as a military hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican-American War. In 1845, as the annexation of Texas was underway, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande area in anticipation of a potential battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas-Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in May 1846, and Taylor led American troops to victory in a series of battles. There Taylor was the victorious commander at the battles of Palo Alta, Resaca de la Palma and Monterrey, winning against greater numbers. He became a national hero, and political clubs sprung up to draw him into the upcoming 1848 presidential election.

The Whig Party convinced the reluctant Taylor to run at the top of their ticket in the next election, despite his lack of interest in politics. No one knew for sure which if any political party he supported. Taylor won the election, running on a ticket with U.S. Representative Millard Fillmore of New York, defeating Democratic candidate Lewis Cass.

During his brief tenure as president, Taylor surprised many, and established himself as a strong supporter of the union. He refused to take his marching orders from the Whigs in Congress. Debate over the slave status of the large territories claimed in the Mexican War led to threats of secession from Southerners. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. He wanted settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood. Debate over the issue led to the Compromise of 1850, something that Taylor did not support. But before the issue could be decided, Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850.

On July 4, 1850, Taylor had attended Independence Day celebrations and had eaten cherries and iced milk following a fund-raising event at the Washington Monument, which was then under construction. Over the course of several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment. His doctor diagnosed the illness as a form of cholera. Fever followed and Taylor's condition worsened. He died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850. He was 65 years old.

Taylor was interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. from July 13, 1850 to October 25, 1850. His body was transported to the Taylor Family plot where his parents were buried, on the old Taylor homestead plantation known as 'Springfield' in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a fifty-foot monument in his honor near his grave. The cemetery property has since been designated as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.

Following his death, rumors began to circulate that Taylor was poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners. In the late 1980s, Clara Rising, a former professor at University of Florida, persuaded Taylor's closest living relative to agree to an exhumation so that his remains could be tested. Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner on June 17, 1991. Samples of hair, fingernail, and other tissues were removed, and radiological studies were conducted. The remains were returned to the cemetery and reinterred. Analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning.

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One thing that has always bothered me is that there does not seem to be any sort of presidential museum for Zachary Taylor. This is unfortunate, given his many military accomplishments and his potential to be a great president. I often wonder how secession and the civil war would have unfolded if Taylor had served a full term in office. Would he have vetoed the Compromise of 1850? Would he had confronted secessionists in the same manner as Andrew Jackson had? Would he have accelerated the issue? Would the issues encountered in Kansas during Franklin Pierce's term have happened that much sooner? It makes for interesting historical speculation.

Potus Geeks Book Review: Nuclear War-A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen

Annie Jacobsen is a tenacious and brilliant author and journalist who, the the past has written on such arcane and interesting subjects such as Area 51, the hidden history of the CIA, Operation Paperclip (the relocation of former Nazi scientist for work in US defense projects), DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) as well as the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, just to name a few subjects covered by this prolific author. In her latest work, entitled Nuclear War: A Scenario, the Pulitzer Prize finalist tackles a subject more fitting for a Stephen King novel: what would happen if a foreign enemy (say North Korea, for example) started a nuclear war with the United States?

Jacobsen shows remarkable knowledge of the inner workings of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as other government agencies such as FEMA. She also understands and explains highly technical aspects of how a nuclear attack would unfold, including the mechanics of launch and flight of a missile carrying a nuclear warhead, the thought behind target selection, how launch of a missile with nuclear capability is detected by US defense systems, the time to react to such a catastrophe, and all of the many players involved at multiple locations who must be called upon to react to such a catastrophe. How does one react to an incoming nuke, and are there systems in place to intercept the attack before impact and detonation? What is the "nuclear football" and how does the President actually use it? Jacobsen answers all of these questions, and the answers aren't pretty. In a minute-by-minute analysis, detailing the roles of military personnel from junior officers right up to the commander-in-chief (the President).

Jacobsen divides her book into five parts: the build-up of the nuclear arms race, the first 24 minutes of an attack (roughly the period from launch to impact in her scenario), the next 24 minutes. the 24 minute segment after that, and finally the aftermath. She leaves no stone unturned, describing what impact looks like, the mechanics of retaliation, each of the major powers' estimated nuclear capability, the effects of nuclear fallout, the consequences to the populace both in the blast zone and in the surrounding areas, and the long term environment consequences, including a comprehensible explanation of what nuclear winter is like.

As the book's forward correctly states, Jacobsen "takes the reader up to the razor's edge of what can be legally known" about a potential nuclear war. She has conducted detailed interviews with former government defense officials and high-ranking military personnel, nuclear physicists and others who have worked in US nuclear command and control positions. Her conclusions are not pleasant. After taking the reader through this ticking clock scenario, Jacobsen makes it clear that there will be no winner in a war fought with nuclear weapons, and that despite the promise that deterrence would prevent her scenario from ever happen, nations continue to build bigger and more destructive and more expensive weapons.

As might be expected from such a powerful and engaging writer, this book captures and keeps the reader's interest, in spite of its highly disturbing subject. It is not a feel good book. If the folly of nuclear war has not already become apparent to everyone, Jacobsen makes the point as clearly as can be made. There is no winner in a nuclear war. Everyone loses. She reaches this conclusion:

With time, after a nuclear war, all present-day knowledge will be gone. Including the knowledge that the enemy was not North Korea, Russia, America, China, Iran or anyone else vilified as a nation or a group.

It was the nuclear weapons that were the enemy of us all. All along.
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Presidents in Retirement: James Monroe

After serving two terms as President, the second running unopposed, James Monroe followed the tradition set by George Washington and opted not to seek a third term, something permissible at the time (but frowned upon.) When his presidency ended on March 4, 1825, Monroe retired to his residence at Monroe Hill, on what is now part of the grounds of the University of Virginia. For the first five years of his retirement he lived at his Oak Hill residence in Aldie, Virginia. One of the early highlights of his retirement took place in August 1825, when the Monroes had received the Marquis de Lafayette and President John Quincy Adams as guests there. Monroe and his wife Elizabeth had become acquainted with Lafayette and his wife Adrienne when Monroe was serving as American Minister to France. During the French Revolution he had lobbied for Lafayette's release from prison and had obtained passports for Adrienne and her daughters from Connecticut, which had granted the entire Lafayette family US citizenship. While still President, Monroe had invited Lafayette to visit the United States in 1824, in part to celebrate the nation's upcoming 50th anniversary. Monroe intended to have Lafayette travel on an American warship, but Lafayette felt that having such a vessel as transport was undemocratic and booked passage on the merchant packet Cadmus.


In retirement Monroe was an avid reader. His private library contained over 3,000 books, most of which he had acquired during his stays in Europe. Monroe began work on a book of political theory entitled The People the Sovereigns, Being a Comparison of the Government of the United States with those of the Republics Which Have Existed Before, with the Causes of their Decadence and Fall. The work intended to highlight the difference between governments and people of the United States and other countries, ancient and modern, and to show that certain issues that produced disastrous effects in them were not present in America. The book was never completed because in 1829, Monroe asked his son-in-law George Hay for a review of what he had written, and Hay had an unfavorable reaction to the manuscript. Hay suggested that Monroe write an autobiography instead, and Monroe also thought that this was a good idea. He began working on it, but died before it could be completed.

Like many other former Presidents such as Jefferson or Madison, Monroe also faced pressing financial problems As Minister to France during the 1790s, he had had to take out substantial private loans to fulfill representative duties and diplomatic protocol due to his moderate pay. As early as 1797, he had asked Congress for an expense allowance and had been hoping in vain for a payment ever since. In the last days before handing over the Presidency to his successor John Quincy Adams, Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Madison asking them to support him in his claims against Congress if necessary. He sold off his Highland Plantation to the Second Bank of the United States out of financial desperation. Today the property belongs to his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, which has opened it to the public as a historic site. Throughout his retirement, he was financially insolvent. This along with his wife's poor health made for an unhappy post-presidency.

Monroe served on the Board of Visitors for the University of Virginia under Jefferson and the second rector, James Madison, doing so almost until his death. Monroe had previously been a member of the original board of Central College (the predecessor to the University of Virginia) but the demands of the Presidency prevented him from continuing as a board member. At the annual examinations in July, he presided over the Board of Examiners. The school was facing a problem with poor discipline among the students. To address this, Monroe suggested in a report in 1830 that military drill be added to the curriculum, but Madison disagreed and the suggestion was never implemented.

Monroe's health was adversely affected by a horse accident in 1828. In spite of this, he was elected as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830, one of four delegates elected from the senatorial district made up of his home district of Loudoun and Fairfax County. In October 1829, he was elected by the convention to serve as the presiding officer, but his ppor health required him to step down from this position on December 8.

Shortly before his death, Monroe's son-in-law and close advisor George Hay died on September 21, 1830. Two days later, Monroe's wife Elizabeth died. Upon Elizabeth's death, Monroe moved to 63 Prince Street at Lafayette Place in New York City where he lived with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur, who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur. He received a visit there from John Quincy Adams, who reported his distress at seeing Monroe in such poor condition. On July 4, 1831, Monroe died at age 73 from heart failure and tuberculosis. He became the third president to have died on Independence Day. His death came 55 years after the United States Declaration of Independence was proclaimed and five years after the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.


Monroe was originally buried in New York at the Gouverneur family's vault in the New York City Marble Cemetery. 27 years later, in 1858, his body was re-interred at the President's Circle in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The James Monroe Tomb is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Presidents in Retirement: James Madison

James Madison left office in March of 1817, following the inauguration of his successor James Monroe. Madison was 65 years old at the time and he retired to his Virginia home called Montpelier, not far from Thomas Jefferson's home of Monticello. As with both Washington and Jefferson, Madison left the presidency a poorer man than when he came in. His plantation experienced a steady financial decline, caused by dropping prices for tobacco and also because his stepson, John Payne Todd, had mismanaged the property.

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In retirement, Madison would occasionally became involved in public affairs, and he provided advice to some of the subsequent Presidents including Monroe and Andrew Jackson. He kept quiet during the public debate over the Missouri Compromise, but privately he complained about the North's opposition to the extension of slavery. During the controversial election of 1824, Madison had good relations with all four of the major candidates and so he stayed out of the race, refusing to endorse any one candidate. When Andrew Jackson became President and faced a challenge from John C. Calhoun over high tariffs, Madison publicly disavowed the Nullification movement and argued that no state had the right to secede.

Madison helped Thomas Jefferson establish the University of Virginia, and in 1826, after the death of Jefferson, Madison was appointed as the second rector of the university (Jefferson had been the first). He retained the position as college chancellor for ten years until his death in 1836.

In 1829, at the age of 78, Madison was chosen as a representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention for revision of the commonwealth's constitution. This would be his last appearance as a statesman. Apportionment of adequate representation was the central issue at the convention for the western districts of Virginia. The increased population in the Piedmont and western parts of the state were not proportionately represented in the legislature. Western reformers also wanted to extend suffrage to all white men, instead of the prevailing property ownership requirement. Madison agreed with this position and was disappointed at the failure to extend suffrage to all white males in the state.

In his later years, Madison became highly concerned about his historical legacy. He began to modify letters and other documents in his possession, changing days and dates, and adding and deleting words and sentences. By his late seventies, Madison's self-editing of his own archived letters and older materials seemed almost to become an obsession. He edited a letter he had written to Thomas Jefferson criticizing the Marquis de Lafayette. In his revised version, Madison not only inked out original passages but in other correspondence he even forged Jefferson's handwriting.

During the last six years of his life, Madison was experiencing significant financial problems, and some historians have speculated that this adversely affected him both physically and mentally. For almost an entire year from 1831 to 1832, he was bedridden, and suffered great anxiety. His health slowly deteriorated through the early-to-mid-1830s. On the morning of June 28, 1836, he died of congestive heart failure at Montpelier, at the age of 85. That morning he was given his breakfast, which he tried eating but was unable to swallow. His favorite niece, Nellie Madison Willis was with him and asked him, "What is the matter, Uncle James?" According to her account, Madison died immediately after he replied, "Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear."


Madison was buried in the family cemetery at Montpelier, one of the last prominent members of the Revolutionary War generation. His last will and testament left significant sums to the American Colonization Society, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, as well as $30,000 (over $900,000 in today's dollars) to his wife, Dolley. While this seems like a significant sum of money, apparently it was insufficient for Dolley to run Montpelier and she experienced financial troubles until her death in 1849. Sometime in the 1840s Dolley sold Montpelier, along with its remaining enslaved persons, and the furnishings in the house, in order to pay off outstanding debts. This account was written by Paul Jennings, one of Madison's enslaved persons, in his memoir:

"In the last days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband's papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her."

Presidents in Retirement: George W. Bush

Anxious not to repeat what happened when Bill Clinton left office, George W. Bush ensured a very civil and courteous transition to his successor. He attended the inauguration of Barack Obama, after which Bush and his family flew from Andrews Air Force Base to a homecoming celebration in Midland, Texas. They then returned to their ranch in Crawford, Texas. As their primary residence, the Bushes bought a home in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, Texas.


Bush would make regular appearances at various events throughout the Dallas–Fort Worth area, including the opening coin toss at the Dallas Cowboys' first game in the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. At an April 2009 Texas Rangers game, he thanked the people of Dallas for helping him settle in, which was met with a standing ovation. He also attended every home playoff game during the Rangers' 2010 season and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for Game 4 of the 2010 World Series on October 31, accompanied by his father, former President George H. W. Bush. He also threw the first pitch in Game 1 of the 2023 World Series.

On August 6, 2013, Bush was successfully treated for a coronary artery blockage with a stent. The blockage had been found during an annual medical examination.

Although he often declined comments on current events, in 2016, in reaction to a shooting in which Dallas police officers were killed, Bush said, "Laura and I are heartbroken by the heinous acts of violence in our city last night. Murdering the innocent is always evil, never more so than when the lives taken belong to those who protect our families and communities."

Generally speaking however, since leaving office, Bush has kept a relatively low profile. He has spoken in favor of increased global participation of women in politics and societal matters in foreign countries. In March 2009, he delivered his first post-presidency speech in Calgary, Alberta. He also made an appearance via video on The Colbert Report during which he praised U.S. troops for earning a "special place in American history", and he attended the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy. He spoke on October 26 at the "Get Motivated" seminar in Dallas, and following the Fort Hood shooting on November 5, 2009, the Bushes paid an undisclosed visit to the survivors and the victims' families the day following the shooting. He contacted the base commander prior to the visit and asked that the visit be private and not involve press coverage.

Bush released his memoirs, Decision Points, on November 9, 2010. In a pre-release appearance promoting the book, Bush said he considered his biggest accomplishment to be keeping "the country safe amid a real danger", and his greatest failure to be his inability to secure the passage of Social Security reform. When asked about his administration's enhanced interrogation techniques, specifically the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he said, "I'd do it again to save lives."

Bush appeared on NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on November 19, 2013, along with his wife Laura. When asked by Leno why he does not comment publicly about the Obama administration, Bush said, "I don't think it's good for the country to have a former president criticize his successor." He has broken this rule on occasion, such as in 2011 when he expressed disagreement with President Barack Obama's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. He called the move a "strategic blunder". In December of 2013, Bush travelled with President Obama to the memorial service of South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela. Also attending the funeral were former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Bush attended the 2014 United States–Africa Leaders Summit, also attended by Michelle Obama. A one day forum at the event was hosted by the State Department, and the George W. Bush Institute. Spouses of the African leaders attending the summit. Bush spoke at the event and urged African leaders to avoid discriminatory laws that make the treatment of HIV/AIDS more difficult. On November 2, 2014, Bush spoke to 200 business and civic leaders at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum to raise awareness for the upcoming Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. On November 11, Bush published a biography of his father titled 41: A Portrait of My Father. He was encouraged to write the book by historian David McCulloch, who noted that John Quincy Adams meant to write a book about his father, but never completed the project.

During the early stages of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Bush campaigned for his brother Jeb Bush at a South Carolina rally. Bush refused to endorse the part's nominee, Donald Trump, and he did not attend the party's convention. Bush has privately expressed concern about the current direction of the Republican Party. He is reported to have said, "I'm worried that I will be the last Republican president." He did not vote for Trump in the 2016 general election, instead choosing to leave his presidential ballot blank. In 2020 he said that he wrote in the name of Condoleezza Rice.

Both George and Laura Bush attended Donald Trump's inauguration. He is reported to have described the ceremony, and Trump's inaugural address in particular, as "some weird shit".

In February 2017, Bush released a book of his own portraits of veterans called Portraits of Courage. In August of that year, following the white nationalist Unite the Right rally, Bush and his father released a joint statement condemning the violence and ideologies present there. He later gave a speech in New York where he said of the current political climate:

"Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. Bigotry in any form is blasphemy against the American creed and it means the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation."

On September 1, 2018, the Bushes attended the funeral of John McCain at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Later that year, on November 30, his father died. Bush had spoken with his father on the phone, and on the call his father uttered what would be his last words, "I love you too". Bush attended his father's funeral on December 5, delivering a eulogy.

On June 1, 2020, Bush released a statement addressing the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide reaction and protests. In the statement, Bush wrote that he and former first lady Laura Bush "are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country". He added, "Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions". On July 30, Bush and his wife Laura attended and spoke at the funeral for civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Also present at the ceremony were former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Bush did not give many endorsements during the 2020 presidential election, but he held a virtual fundraiser for U.S. Senators Susan Collins or Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. All four were up for reelection and were struggling in the polls. He also did not attend the 2020 Republican National Convention where President Trump was re-nominated. When the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, Bush congratulated him and his running mate Kamala Harris. He also congratulated Trump and his supporters "on a hard-fought campaign". Bush's outreach to Biden was noticable since Republican candidate Donald Trump had not yet conceded. Bush then issued a statement saying that while Trump was within his rights to call for recounts, he believed the election was "fundamentally fair" and that "its outcome is clear." He offered Biden "my prayers for his success, and my pledge to help in any way I can."

On January 6, 2021, following the U.S. Capitol attack, Bush denounced the violence and attack alongside the three other living former presidents, Obama, Clinton, and Carter. He released a statement saying that "this is how election results are disputed in a banana republic, not our democratic republic. It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight". On January 20, Bush and his wife attended Biden's inauguration.

Bush opposed President Biden's withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, calling the plan "a mistake". On September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Bush gave a speech at the Flight 93 National Memorial, praising the heroism of the people on Flight 93 and the spirit of America. He also said that he "saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know."

On May 2, 2011, President Obama called Bush, who was at a restaurant with his wife, to inform him that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The Bushes joined the Obamas in New York City to mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the Ground Zero memorial, Bush read a letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a widow who had lost five sons during the Civil War. On September 7, 2017, Bush partnered with former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama to work with One America Appeal to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in the Gulf Coast and Texas communities.


Over the years, President Bush has had a good-natured friendship with Michelle Obama. She said of the man who preceded her husband as President, "President Bush and I, we are forever seatmates because of protocol, and that's how we sit at all the official functions. He's my partner in crime at every major thing where all the 'formers' gather. So we're together all the time." She later added, "I love him to death. He's a wonderful man, he's a funny man." Bush famously passed mints to her during the McCain funeral in September 2018 and gave them to her again during the funeral of his father in December 2018.

After serving as president, Bush began painting as a hobby after reading Winston Churchill's essay "Painting as a Pastime". His subjects have included people, dogs, and still life. He has also painted self-portraits and portraits of world leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair. In February 2017, Bush released a book of portraits of veterans, Portraits of Courage. The net proceeds from his book are donated to the George W. Bush Presidential Center.