Zachary Taylor: The Non-Political President

While President Zachary Taylor did not serve a full term in office, there is much to be admired about the man, both for his abilities as a General, and his potential as a President. For one thing he came into office without anyone being really sure what his politics were. Some sources claim that he had never even voted before becoming President, and both parties had courted him to become their presidential candidate, following his successful military career.

no title

Zachary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States, serving from his inauguration March 1849 until his death in July 1850, a period of just over 16 months. Taylor had been a career officer in the United States Army, who rose to the rank of major general. He became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican–American War, which made him a desirable candidate for President. Although no one knew for sure which party he belonged to, his President, James K. Polk, believed that Taylor was a Whig. Polk turned out to be correct. Taylor won election to the White House despite his vague political leanings. As President, his top priority was preserving the Union, but he died before making any progress on the hot button issue of the day, slavery. It was the issue which had been inflaming tensions in Congress and which threatened to tear the nation apart.

Taylor was born in Barboursville, Virginia three years after the end of the American Revolution. He was born into a prominent family of plantation owners who moved west, from Virginia to Kentucky when Zachary was a child. His second cousin was James Madison. Taylor joined the US Army and was commissioned as an officer in 1808. He served with distinction as a Captain in the War of 1812 and rose in the ranks in military forts along the Mississippi River. During the Black Hawk War he was promoted to Colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname "Old Rough and Ready".

In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande, as part of a show of force in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, despite being outnumbered in both battles. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops at the Battle of Monterrey. Contrary to his orders, he led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Polk felt threatened by the popularity that came with Taylor's success. He had Taylor's troops transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott. In spite of this, Taylor remained a very popular general, both with his troops and with the general public.

Both parties considered Taylor as a presidential candidate because nobody was sure which party Taylor supported. History suggests that as a good soldier, Taylor supported whoever his commander in chief was, and is is believed that he had never even voted. It was the Whig Party that was able to convince Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite knowing what Taylor really stood for. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to win the nomination. He won the general election on a ticket with New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having ever served in a prior political office.

As president, Taylor refused to be led by Henry Clay and the other Whigs in Congress, at a time when partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. A debate was raging over the status of slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War. Southerners threatened to secede if slavery was not permitted in the territories. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. He was a union man who saw as his goal that of keeping the nation united. To avoid the contentious issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood.

In Congress, the Compromise of 1850 was being debated and proposed, something that Taylor was not entirely pleased with. But before he could confront the issue, he died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850. In his brief time in office, his administration's greatest accomplishment was probably the ratification of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, an accord between the US and Great Britain on a future canal through Central America.

Historians and scholars have ranked Taylor in the bottom quartile of U.S. presidents, mostly due to his short term of office. The Clayton–Bulwer Treaty affecting relations with Great Britain in Central America is viewed as an important step building on strong relations between the two nations and averting possible future confrontation in Latin America. Although historical rankings of Presidents have generally placed Taylor in the bottom quarter percentile, most surveys tend to rank him as the most effective of the four presidents from the Whig Party. Taylor was the last president to own slaves while in office. He was also the second president to die in office, preceded by William Henry Harrison, who died while serving as president nine years earlier.

In 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a 50-foot monument topped by a life-sized statue of Taylor near his grave. During the 1920s, the Taylor family commenced work to turn the Taylor burial grounds into a national cemetery. The Commonwealth of Kentucky donated two adjacent parcels of land for the project, turning the half-acre Taylor family cemetery into 16 acres. On May 6, 1926, the remains of Taylor and his wife (who died in 1852) were moved to the newly constructed Taylor mausoleum. The cemetery property has been designated as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. That's as close as Taylor has come to having any sort of a Presidential Museum.

Several places around the United States are named after Taylor, including: Camp Taylor in Kentucky and Fort Zachary Taylor in Florida; The SS Zachary Taylor, a World War II Liberty ship; Zachary Taylor Parkway in Louisiana; Zachary Taylor Hall at Southeastern Louisiana University. There are Taylor Counties named after him in Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky. The town of Rough and Ready, California is named for him as are the Zachary Taylor Highway in Virginia and Taylor, Michigan. He has no connection with the naming of Taylor Swift or Taylor Lautner.

no title

Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to circulate that Taylor was poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners. These rumors became a part of Taylor's legacy and persisted into the 21st century. In 1978, Hamilton Smith postulated his assassination theory, based on the lack of confirmed cholera outbreaks, and other material. 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, with appropriate honors, in the mausoleum. Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning, as arsenic levels were too low. The analysis concluded Taylor had contracted "cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis", and that his food or drink was likely contaminated by harmful bacteria. Any hope for Taylor's recovery was likely prevented because of the quackery of his doctors, who treated him with "ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine" at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams). They also "bled and blistered him." Despite this, the rumors that Taylor was poisoned persist.

John Quincy Adams: The Visionary President

Perhaps because he was so well travelled, John Quincy Adams was a man of tremendous vision. Sometimes he was mocked for it, but in looking back on his legacy, we see a man ahead of his time. Like his father before him, John Quincy Adams is remembered as a man of great integrity and principle. At a time when Americans in southern states were defending the enslavement of fellow human beings based on the color of their skin, and while Americans in northern states looked the other way while this was happening, John Quincy Adams saw slavery for what it clearly was: wrong. He also envisioned a better future for his nation and his imagination took him to the stars.


The second President Adams is widely regarded as one of the most effective diplomats and secretaries of state in American history. Regrettably this demonstration of extraordinary ability did not carry through to his term as President. John Quincy Adams is remembered as a man eminently qualified for the presidency. But perhaps be was doomed from the start because of the circumstances of his election: he finished second in electoral and popular voting, but secured victory in a runoff election in the House of Representatives that his opponents spun as being the result of a "corrupt bargain." Hamstrung by this claim of illegitimacy in obtaining his office, Adams was left hopelessly weakened in his presidential leadership potential as a result.

Oh but what a pedigree and what a resume! He was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of John Adams, the first Vice-President and second President of the United States. As a youth, John Quincy spent much of his time in Europe, where his father served as a diplomat. After returning to the United States, Adams practiced law in Boston. In 1794, President George Washington appointed Adams as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, and Adams would later serve as Ambassador to Prussia, Russia, and to the United Kingdom. He also served most of a term as the United States Senator from Massachusetts. But Adams broke with the Federalist Party over foreign policy and was denied re-election. In 1809, Adams was appointed as the U.S. ambassador to Russia by President James Madison. He was part of the American delegation that negotiated an end to the War of 1812.

In 1817, President James Monroe selected Adams as his Secretary of State. In that role, Adams negotiated the Adams–Onís Treaty, which provided for the American acquisition of Florida. He also helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine, which became a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy.

The 1824 presidential election was a pivotal contest between Adams, Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, all of whom were members of the Democratic-Republican Party. When no candidate won a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives held a contingent election to determine the president, which Adams won with Clay's support. When Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State, Jackson and others cried foul and accused Adams and Clay of forming a "corrupt bargain."

To use modern parlance, Adams would often "think outside the box". For example, in his first annual message to Congress he proposed the building of astronomical observatories, referring to them as "lighthouses in the skies". He told Congress:

"Connected with the establishment of an university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer... It is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these lighthouses of the skies, while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect a moment upon the discoveries which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by the means of these buildings and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?”

Adams' forward thinking was mocked at the time, but he was certainly unafraid to use his imagination to consider scientific possibilities. During Adams presidency, one of these scientific imaginings was something called the Hollow Earth Theory. One of its leading proponents was John Cleves Symmes, Jr., an American army officer, who was traveling around the country on the lecture circuit. Symmes was espousing his theory of a Hollow Earth. He believed that our planet was composed of several solid concentric spheres. He published a circular containing the theory and in his talks he was lobbying for "one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea." He planned to somehow slip between those concentric spheres, which he believed were open at the poles "12 or 16 degrees."

Symmes lobbied Congress for funding for the epic journey. Not surprisingly, Congress said no. But President John Quincy Adams believed that there might be something to Symmes theory. Even though Congress considered the theory to be laughable, Adams disagreed. In Adams’ diary, he wrote: "I saw the sun rise and set, clear, from Charles' house on the hill. The pleasure that I take in witnessing these magnificent phenomena of physical nature never tires; it is a part of my own nature, unintelligible to others. The sensations which affect me at the rising and setting sun are first, adoration to the power and goodness of the Creator, mingled in the morning with thanksgiving and in the evening with sadness and with humble supplication for forgiveness of my own errors and infirmities."

As president, Adams set out an ambitious agenda that included federally-funded infrastructure projects, the establishment of a national university, and engagement with the countries of Latin America. But he had too many opponents in Congress and they defeated many of his initiatives. During Adams's presidency, the Democratic-Republic Party polarized into two major camps: one group, known as the National Republican Party, supported Adams, while the other group, known as the Democratic Party, supported Andrew Jackson. The Democrats proved to be more effective political organizers than Adams and his National Republican supporters, and Jackson decisively defeated Adams in the 1828 presidential election.

Rather than retiring from public service, Adams won election to the House of Representatives, where he would serve from 1831 to his death in 1848. He joined the Anti-Masonic Party in the early 1830s before becoming a member of the Whig Party, which united those opposed to President Jackson. During his time in Congress, Adams became increasingly critical of slavery and of the Southern leaders whom he believed controlled the Democratic Party. He vigorously opposed to the annexation of Texas and also opposed US entry into the Mexican–American War. He saw it as a war to extend slavery. Adams led the fight to repeal the "gag rule," which had prevented the House of Representatives from debating petitions to abolish slavery. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while on the floor of the House, voting against a motion concerning the war and died in the Speaker's office two days later.

Adams is remembered as someone who was a poor politician because he refused to play the game at a time when politics had begun to matter more. He was remembered more recently due to his anti-slavery stances. Adams was the first prominent political leader to publicly question whether the United States could remain united so long as the institution of slavery persisted. He accurately predicted the coming of civil war. His intellectual ability and courage were above reproach, and his wisdom in perceiving what was really in the national interest has stood the test of time. More properly, he was a man ahead of his time, and underappreciated for it.

John Quincy Adams Birthplace is now part of Adams National Historical Park and open to the public. Adams House, one of twelve undergraduate residential Houses at Harvard University, is named in honor of his entire family. In 1870, his son Charles Francis built the first presidential library in the United States, to honor his father. The Stone Library includes over 14,000 books written in twelve languages. The library is located in the "Old House" at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts.

no title

In 1843 Adams sat for the earliest confirmed photograph still in existence of a U.S. president (current or former). The original daguerreotype is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

James Monroe: The Under-rated President

James Monroe is probably the most under-rated President. If he had a theme song, it might be "anything you can do, I can do better" because he led such an accomplished life, and yet people know so little about him. They are even misinformed on some of the things they think they know about him. When most people think of James Monroe, if they think of him at all, it is for the doctrine that bears his name. Yet many people claim that the Monroe Doctrine is really the work of his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Still, there is much to admire about the 5th President of the United States. When the trivia question is posed: which two-term President was wounded in war, sat in Congress, was Governor of his state as well as it's US Senator, held two cabinet posts, was Ambassador to France and England, and won re-election by near acclamation, most people are stumped. The man accomplished a lot.

no title

Monroe was born into a planter family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. But it was not a wealthy family, especially after his father died when young James was just a teenager. He was able to attend school with help from a rich uncle, but he dropped out to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. After crossing the Delaware as part of George Washington's army, Monroe was wounded at the Battle of Trenton and nearly died, but was saved by the timely intervention of a surgeon who had happened to accompany the unit that Monroe was in at the last minute.

After studying law under Thomas Jefferson from 1780 to 1783, Monroe served as a delegate in the Continental Congress. As a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Monroe opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution. He lost an election to the first US Congress to his friend (and later his boss) James Madison. In 1790, he won election to the Senate, where he became a leader of the Democratic-Republican Party. He left the Senate in 1794 to serve as President George Washington's ambassador to France, but was recalled by Washington in 1796. Monroe won election as Governor of Virginia in 1799.

Monroe was appointed as President Thomas Jefferson's special envoy to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, through which the United States nearly doubled in size. Monroe unsuccessfully challenged Madison in the 1808 presidential election, but in April 1811 he joined Madison's administration as Secretary of State. During the later stages of the War of 1812, Monroe simultaneously served as Madison's Secretary of State and Secretary of War. His war-time leadership established him as Madison's heir apparent, and he easily defeated Federalist Party candidate Rufus King in the 1816 presidential election.

Monroe's presidency ushered in what became known as the Era of Good Feelings, as the Federalist Party collapsed as a national political force. Rather than gloat, Monroe embarked on a goodwill tour, going into the heart of enemy political territory to let New Englanders known that he was President of all the people. He was very well received.

As president, Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and banned slavery from territories north of the parallel 36°30′ north. In foreign affairs, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams favored a policy of conciliation with Britain and a policy of expansionism against the Spanish Empire. In the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain, the United States secured Florida and established its western border with New Spain.

Monroe was re-elected in 1820, with every electoral vote, save for one faithless elector who decided to cast his vote for John Quincy Adams. According to some versions, the elector did this so that George Washington would retain the honor of being the only President to win the presidency by capturing all electoral votes. (Others say that the guy just didn't like Monroe). In 1823, Monroe announced the United States' opposition to any European intervention in the recently independent countries of the Americas with what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. This pronouncement has become a landmark in American foreign policy. Monroe was also a member of the American Colonization Society, which supported the colonization of Africa by freed slaves. Liberia's capital of Monrovia is named in his honor.

Following his retirement in 1825, Monroe left office a poorer man than when he entered it. He was plagued by financial difficulties and was forced to sell his Virginia property and move in with his daughter and her husband in New York. He died in New York City on the 4th of July in 1831.

Though he lived in the shadow of men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, James Monroe presided over a pivotal period in United States history, as the nation began to turn away from European affairs and focus more on domestic issues. His presidency saw the United States settle many of its longstanding boundary issues through an accommodation with Britain and the acquisition of Florida. Monroe also helped resolve sectional tensions for the time being through his support of the Missouri Compromise and by seeking support from all regions of the country. Through the looking glass of hindsight, Monroe presents as a more effective executive than some of his better-known predecessors. Sadly, many just remember him for his old-world style of dress, as the last President to wear a powdered wig tied in a queue, a tricorne hat and knee-breeches.

Monroe's visage never found its way onto any currency. He was the inspiration for seventeen Monroe counties as well as for the cities of Monroe, Maine (incorporated in 1818), Monroe, Michigan and Monroe, Georgia (incorporated in 1821), and Monroe, Connecticut (incorporated in 1823). The Township of Monroe, in central New Jersey, founded in 1838, bears his name as well and Fort Monroe is named for him.


Polls of historians and political scientists tend to rank Monroe as an above average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Monroe as the eighteenth best president, while a 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Monroe as the thirteenth best president. A ranking of the Presidents by members of this community conducted in 2012 ranked Monroe much higher at number 7. Which ever ranking is most accurate, Monroe's legacy continues to be that of a leader who is underappreciated for all of his many accomplishments.

John Tyler: The Accidental President

Historical assessments of the presidency of John Tyler have been divided, tending more toward the negative side. One the one hand, as the first Vice-President to ascend to the Presidency following the death of a sitting President, Tyler has been praised for his firm resolve in insisting that he was not merely an "acting president" and in establishing precedent for what is supposed to occur in such an event. On the other hand, like many other Presidents who tried to support the cause of slavery, Tyler is generally held in low esteem by historians. One of his biographers, Edward P. Crapol, begins his 2006 biography John Tyler, the Accidental President (2006) with the observation: "Other biographers and historians have argued that John Tyler was a hapless and inept chief executive whose presidency was seriously flawed."

no title

Tyler was the tenth President of the United States from 1841 to 1845 after briefly being the tenth vice president. He was elected as Vice-President on the Whig ticket in the 1840 election with President William Henry Harrison. Tyler became President after Harrison's death in April 1841, only a month after the start of the new administration. Tyler was a very strong supporter of states' rights. As president he supported nationalist policies only when they did not infringe on the powers of the states. His unexpected rise to the presidency clashed with the presidential ambitions of Henry Clay and other Whigs and it left him estranged from both major political parties.

Tyler was born into a prominent Virginia family. He represented his state in the US House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821. In the 1820s the nation's only political party, the Democratic-Republicans, split into factions. Tyler was initially a Democrat, but he opposed Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis, seeing Jackson's actions as infringing upon states' rights. He also criticized Jackson's expansion of executive power during the Bank War. This caused Tyler to leave the Democrats and join the Whig Party. Tyler served as Governor of Virginia from 1825 to 1827 and as and a U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1827 to 1837. He was put on the 1840 presidential ticket to attract states' rights Southerners to a Whig coalition in an effort to defeat Martin Van Buren's bid for re-election.

With the death of President Harrison, Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency without election. He served as President longer than any other president not elected to the office. He acted decisively in establishing his authority as president in a time of constitutional uncertainty. Tyler immediately took the oath of office, moved into the White House, and assumed full presidential powers, creating a precedent that governed future successions. This was eventually codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

Tyler did sign into law some of the Whig-controlled Congress's bills, but he offended the party leadership when he vetoed the party's bills to create a national bank and raise the tariff rates. Tyler believed that the president should set policy rather than Congress. He tried to to bypass the Whig leadership in Congress, most notably Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. Most of Tyler's Cabinet resigned early on in his term. Whigs mocked him by calling him "His Accidency". They expelled him from the party. Tyler became the first president to see his veto of legislation overridden by Congress.

Although he met considerable congressional resistance when it came to domestic policy, Tyler had several foreign-policy successes, including the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain and the Treaty of Wanghia with Qing China. But it was in his dealing with the then-independent Republic of Texas that was the centerpiece of his presidency. Texas had separated from Mexico in 1836. Tyler saw its annexation as providing an economic advantage to the United States, and he worked diligently to bring about this goal. That he was able to do so without the backing of his own political party is quite impressive.

Tyler hoped to win election to a full term as president, but he failed to gain the support of either Whigs or Democrats. On learning that the Democratic candidate James K. Polk also favored annexation of Texas, Tyler withdrew his candidacy to support Polk. Polk won the election, and Tyler signed a bill to annex Texas three days before leaving office. The process was completed under Polk.

At first Tyler's retirement saw the former president disrespected by his contemporaries. But when the Civil War approached in 1861, Tyler played the role of elder statesman as he tried to broker a peace. When this was unsuccessful, he won election to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death. He is the only former President to be buried with a Confederate flag draping his coffin.

Despite his political resolve in asserting his authority and creating a lasting precedent, Tyler is considered an obscure president and has little presence in American cultural memory. In The Republican Vision of John Tyler, author Dan Monroe wrote that the Tyler presidency "is generally ranked as one of the least successful". A survey of historians conducted by C-SPAN in 2017 ranked Tyler as 39th of 43 men to hold the office. But Tyler's assumption of complete presidential powers set an important precedent. His successful insistence that he was president, and not a caretaker or acting president, was a model for the succession of seven other presidents and the correctness of Tyler's action in assuming both the title of the presidency and its full powers was legally affirmed in 1967, when it was codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Professor Crapol argues that Tyler "was a stronger and more effective president than generally remembered". Tyler was a president without a party." Crapol argues that Tyler's allegiance to the Confederacy overshadows much of the good he did as president. He writes, "John Tyler's historical reputation has yet to fully recover from that tragic decision to betray his loyalty and commitment to what he had once defined as 'the first great American interest'—the preservation of the Union." His lack of success as president was due to external factors that Harrison would have had to confront. In the aftermath of Jackson's aggressive use of the powers of the Executive Branch, the Whigs wanted a president who would be dominated by Congress. Henry Clay treated Tyler as a subordinate. Tyler refused to go along with this, leading to the conflict between these two branches of government. Crapol and others argue that Tyler does not get enough credit for sticking to his principles on this.


John Tyler is a difficult subject to properly assess, as is acknowledged in the most recent biography about him entitled President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy (reviewed here in this community.) As the author of that book concludes, John Tyler remains a riddle in many ways. Tyler was a product of his times. He supported slavery over union likely because that's how he was raised. His intellectual struggles appear to have been rooted in ego as much as in principle. Even with Leahy's laborious effort to understand John Tyler better, his legacy leaves the 10th President as difficult to understand as ever.

Today the general public has little awareness of John Tyler at all. As Robert Seager II, the author of the 1963 book And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler put it, "His countrymen generally remember him, if they have heard of him at all, as the rhyming end of a catchy campaign slogan." In a 2014 Time Magazine article on the "Top 10 Forgettable Presidents", the writer notes: "After John Tyler earned the vice presidency on the strength of a campaign slogan that tacked him on as a postscript — 'Tippecanoe and Tyler too' — his fate as a historical footnote seemed likely; and when he ascended to the presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, being dubbed 'His Accidency' made it a lock."

James K. Polk: The To-Do List President

James K. Polk might be another obscure President today, just another in a string of names nobody can remember between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, were it not for three things: 1) a catchy song from an American alternative band; 2) a now-disputed tale about how Polk began his presidency with a to-do list and checked off every item on it; and 3) a war that many believe was commenced on false pretenses.

no title

Polk was the 11th president of the United States and is the only President, thus far, to have previously served as Speaker of the House of Representatives, a post he held from 1835 to 1839. He served as Governor of Tennessee from 1839 to 1841. Polk became a protégé and strong supporter of Andrew Jackson. Like Jackson, Polk was born in the Carolinas and became an influential Tennessee politician. Like Jackson, both men built a successful law practice in Tennessee. Polk was elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1823 and then to the United States House of Representatives in 1825, where he was a strong supporter of Jackson. He rose to the position of Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and became Speaker in 1835. Polk left Congress to run for governor of Tennessee. He won in 1839, but lost in the next two elections in 1841 and 1843. As a result, many considered Polk to be washed up as a politician and unelectable. They were wrong.

The Democratic Party required 2/3 of the delegates at their convention to choose their candidate for president. Like the song by the alternative group They Might Be Giants tells us, "in 1844, the Democrats were split", and it was over the issue of Texas annexation. Elder statesman Andrew Jackson was for it, but the leading nominee, Martin Van Buren, was against it. In the end, the delegates could not agree on any of the leading contenders. Instead they selected a "dark horse" candidate (someone nobody considered a likely contender) for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844. Polk went to his party's convention intending to be a potential nominee for vice president. But he emerged as a compromise candidate to head the ticket when no presidential candidate could secure the necessary two-thirds majority. In the general election, Polk defeated Henry Clay of the rival Whig Party.

Polk is considered by many to be the most effective president of the last quarter-century of the antebellum era. In part, this comes from a story told by historian and Polk cabinet member George Bancroft that Polk met every goal he set every major domestic and foreign policy goal he had set for himself. The story has been disputed by the author of Met His Every Goal: James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny by research professor Tom Chaffin (reviewed here in this community.) Chaffin makes the case that the story of Polk's goal-setting exercise is probably apocryphal.

One of Polk's goals was to settle the boundary dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory. After a negotiation that risked war, Polk reached a settlement that divided the territory for the most part along the 49th parallel. He also secured a substantial reduction of tariff rates with the Walker tariff of 1846 and in the same year, he re-established the Independent Treasury system. But it was the war against Mexico that was the centerpiece of Polk's Presidency.

One of the last acts of the Tyler administration was to gain approval for the annexation of Texas. Following the Texan ratification of annexation in 1845, Polk began preparations for a potential war with Mexico over Texas. He sent an army led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor into Texas. Polk hoped that a show of force by the U.S. military could avert war and lead to negotiations with the Mexican government. Diplomatic efforts failed. On January 13, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande. Taylor's army skirmished on the northern side of the Rio Grande on April 25, resulting in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers. When news of this reached Polk, he asked Congress for a declaration of war, claiming that the Mexicans had "shed American blood on the American soil". The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution declaring war. Later a one-term Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln would accused Polk of going to war on a false premise. The war would result in the addition of 529,000 square miles of territory to the United States.


Polk kept his campaign promise to serve only one term as President. He left office in 1849 and returned to Tennessee. His retirement was a brief one as Polk died in Nashville, most likely of cholera, three months after leaving the White House.

Scholars have ranked Polk favorably for his ability to promote and achieve the major items on his presidential agenda, but he has been criticized for leading the country into war against Mexico and for worsening sectional divides. His is also criticized for being a slaveholder for most of his adult life. Polk owned a plantation in Mississippi and bought slaves even while he was President. A major legacy of Polk's presidency is the major territorial expansion which caused the United States to reach the Pacific coast and became poised to be a world power.

After his death, Polk was not immediately appreciated. Sam Houston is said to have observed that Polk, a teetotaler, was "a victim of the use of water as a beverage". Abraham Lincoln still blamed Polk for what he believed to be an unjust war. Lincoln said of Polk at the end of his presidency, "I more than suspect that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him. He is a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man."

Nothing much was published about Polk until 1922 when Eugene McCormac published the two volume "James K. Polk: A Political Biography". McCormac drew heavily on Polk's presidential diary, first published in 1909. When historians began ranking the presidents in 1948, Polk ranked 10th in Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.'s poll. At that time, President Harry Truman said of Polk, "James K Polk, a great president. Said what he intended to do, and did it." Polk ranked 8th in Schlesinger's 1962 poll, and 14th in the 2017 survey by C-SPAN.

Author Walter Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed The Presidency and America, concluded that Polk expanded the power of the presidency, especially in its power as commander in chief and its oversight over the Executive Branch. In The Presidency of James K. Polk, author Paul H. Bergeron wrote: "Virtually everyone remembers Polk and his expansionist successes. He produced a new map of the United States, which fulfilled a continent-wide vision." But Amy Greenberg, in her history of the Mexican War entitled A Wicked War, was critical of Polk's motives for war. She wrote: "During a single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible. With the help of his wife, Sarah, he masterminded, provoked and successfully prosecuted a war that turned the United States into a world power."

Historians have criticized Polk for not perceiving that his territorial gains set the table for civil war, and for failing to appreciate how sectionalism and expansion would light the fuse for a Civil War. Fred Greenstein wrote that Polk "lacked a far-seeing awareness of the problems that were bound to arise over the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico". William Dusinberre, author of Slavemaster President, argues that "Polk's deep personal involvement in the plantation slavery system colored his stance on slavery-related issues".

no title

In the final analysis, those who remember Polk appreciate his efficiency as an administrator. His micromanager style was effective in achieving the major goals of his presidency, whether they were declared in advance or not. But history will also diminish his stature because of his membership in the fraternity of presidency who saw slavery as an acceptable part of American life.

Abraham Lincoln: The Wartime President

Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency in March of 1861, and with it he also assumed a problem left unaddressed by his predecessor. That problem was Fort Sumpter. On December 20, 1860, shortly after Lincoln's election victory, South Carolina had adopted an ordinance declaring its secession from the United States. By February 1861, six more Southern states had adopted similar ordinances of secession. On February 7, the seven states adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America and established their temporary capital at Montgomery, Alabama. A February peace conference met in Washington, D.C., but failed to resolve the crisis.

no title

The seceding states seized a number of Federal properties within their boundaries, including buildings, arsenals, and forts. President James Buchanan protested, but took no military action in response. Buchanan took the position that there was no constitutional authority for a state to secede, but also no constitutional authority to prevent it.

Several forts had been constructed in Charleston's harbor, including Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, which were not among those initially seized. Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan Island, was the headquarters of the U.S. Army garrison. Its defenses against land-based attacks were poor, so Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the Charleston garrison, decided that Fort Sumter, which dominated the entrance to Charleston Harbor, was a much stronger fort. Under the cover of darkness on December 26, six days after South Carolina declared its secession, Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie, rendered its weapons unusable, and quietly relocated his command to Fort Sumter.

South Carolina authorities considered Anderson's move to be a breach of an agreement that Governor Francis W. Pickens had made with President Buchanan to keep Sumter unoccupied, an arrangement that Anderson was unaware of. Pickens therefore ordered that all remaining Federal properties, except Fort Sumter, were to be seized. President Buchanan was surprised by Anderson's move to Sumter, but he refused Pickens's demand to evacuate Charleston harbor. He authorized a relief expedition of supplies, small arms, and 200 soldiers. He sent these on an unarmed civilian merchant ship, the Star of the West. As this ship approached the harbor entrance on January 9, 1861, the Star of the West was fired upon and was forced to turn around.

Following Lincoln's inauguration, Major Anderson, sent a request for provisions to Washington. Lincoln ordered that provisions be sent to Fort Sumpter, and secessionists considered this an act of war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter, forcing them to surrender. These were the first shots of the Civil War.

On April 15, Lincoln called on all the states to send a combined total of 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect Washington, and "preserve the Union". This call forced the states to choose sides. Virginia declared its secession. In return for this decision, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, despite the exposed position of it being so close to Union lines. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas also voted for secession over the next two months. Secession sentiment was strong in Missouri and Maryland, but these states did not have enough support for secession. Kentucky resolved to be neutral.

Troops headed towards Washington to protect the capital in response to Lincoln's call. On April 19, a secessionist mob in Baltimore attacked Union troops traveling to the capital. George William Brown, the Mayor of Baltimore, and other suspected Maryland politicians were arrested and imprisoned, without a warrant. To accomplish this, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. John Merryman, a leader of the secessionist group in Maryland, petitioned Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to issue a writ of habeas corpus. Taney issued the writ, which should have resulted in Merryman's release, but Lincoln ignored it. It was a time of war.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln realized the importance of taking immediate executive control of the war, and devising a strategy to put down the rebellion. Whereas James Buchanan had shied away from the problem of southern secession, Lincoln made his reputation as a commander-in-chief who faced his biggest challenges head on. Lincoln attacked the problem first by expanding his war powers. He directed that there be a blockade on all Confederate shipping ports. He disbursed funds even before they were appropriated by Congress. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus (the power of a court to effect the release of someone in the custody of the state) and he arrested and imprisoned thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers. Lincoln had the support of Congress for all of these actions and he also used the press as a means of getting the northern public on his side.

Lincoln realized early on in the war that he would require bipartisan support for his strategy to succeed, but this was difficult, given the differences which existed both between and within the two parties. He tried to appoint both Republicans and Democrats to command positions in the Union Army. Strict constitutionalists criticized Lincoln for refusing to compromise on the slavery issue, while Radical Republicans criticized him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery. On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act that authorized judiciary proceedings to confiscate and free slaves who were used to support the Confederate war effort. The law meant little practically, but it did win political support from those in favor of abolishing slavery.

Lincoln also had to contend with reinforcing Union sympathies in the border slave states. He also wanted to prevent the war from becoming an international conflict. In late August 1861, General John C. Frémont, who had been the 1856 Republican presidential nominee, issued a proclamation of martial law in Missouri. He declared that any citizen found bearing arms could be court-martialed and shot. He also ordered that slaves of persons aiding the rebellion would be freed. Frémont took these steps on his own authority and without consulting with Lincoln. The general was already facing charges of negligence in his command of the Department of the West, as well as allegations of fraud and corruption. Lincoln overruled Frémont's order He. worried that Fremont's emancipation was too political and that it might drive the border states into the Confederate cause. The order was not neither militarily necessary and likely not legal. When Lincoln did this, Union enlistments from Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri grew by more than 40,000 troops.

On the international front, Lincoln had to address an incident known as the Trent Affair in late 1861. The U.S. Navy had illegally intercepted a British merchant ship, the Trent, and seized two Confederate envoys. Britain protested the incident and Lincoln was worried that this might cause the British to support the Confederacy. In spite of the fact that the seizure of the two Confederates was a popular move for Lincoln within his base, he resolved the issue by releasing the two men. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward was seen as too hardline with the British, so Lincoln also turned to Senator Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an expert in British diplomacy, to make peace with the British.

To learn technical military terms, Lincoln read extensively. He borrowed General Henry Halleck's book, Elements of Military Art and Science, from the Library of Congress. He also monitored the telegraph reports coming into the War Department in Washington, D.C. Lincoln selected generals based on their past success, but he also did not ignore what state and party they were from.


In January 1862, after many complaints of inefficiency and profiteering in the War Department, Lincoln replaced his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, with Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a Democrat, but he was also a strong Unionist and a man whose views accorded with the Radical Republican faction. Stanton worked more closely with Lincoln than any other senior official.

In terms of war strategy, Lincoln set two priorities: (1) to ensure that Washington was well-defended, and (2) to conduct an aggressive war effort to achieve a prompt, decisive victory. Some major Northern newspaper editors expected victory within 90 days. Lincoln met with his cabinet twice a week. Lincoln learned of the importance of controlling strategic points, such as the Mississippi River.

When the War began, the highest ranking officer in the army was the venerable General Winfield Scott. But by this time, Scott was an old man. He was also very obese, over 300 pounds, and could not get on a horse by himself. Lincoln first offered command of the army to Robert E. Lee of Virginia, but when that state joined the Confederacy, Lee resigned from the Army and followed his state. Lincoln would turn to a general called the Young Napoleon, General George McClellan. It would come to be a choice that Lincoln would regret.

The war did not begin well for Lincoln. Union and Confederate forces met at the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas (the name given by Confederates), was fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas, not far from Washington, D.C. It was the first major battle of the war. The Union forces were slow in positioning themselves for battle, which allowed Confederate reinforcements time to arrive. Each side had about 18,000 green troops. Civilians from Washington traveled to watch the battle in a picnic like atmosphere. They expected the battle to be a huge Union victory. They would be disappointed. The Confederates won the day and the battle was followed by a disorganized retreat of the Union forces. It soon became apparent that the war would not be a quick affair.

After the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, aging army commander Winfield Scott retired in late 1861. Lincoln had once hoped to offer command of his army to Robert E. Lee, but when Virginia seceded, Lee returned home and joined the Confederate cause. Lincoln decided to appoint Major General George B. McClellan general-in-chief of all the Union armies. McClellan was a young West Point graduate, railroad executive, and Pennsylvania Democrat. His nickname was "the Young Napoleon" and he had studied European war strategies. McClellan took several months to plan what was called the Peninsula Campaign. His delay troubled Lincoln, but the President had faith in McClellan at the time. The campaign's objective was to capture Richmond by moving the Army of the Potomac by boat to the peninsula and then overland to the Confederate capital. McClellan's repeated delays began to frustrate Lincoln and Congress as well. McClellan also told Lincoln that no troops were needed to defend Washington, something that made both the President and Congress uneasy. Lincoln insisted on holding some of McClellan's troops back to defend the capital. McClellan constantly overestimated the strength of Confederate troops. He blamed Lincoln's decision to hold these troops back at the reason for the ultimate failure of the Peninsula Campaign.

Lincoln eventually became frustrated with McClellan for his procrastination and refusal to attack the enemy. He replaced McClellan as general-in-chief and appointed Henry Wager Halleck to the position in March 1862. Radical Republicans wanted Lincoln to appoint John Pope, a Republican, as head of the new Army of Virginia. McClellan remained as a field commander. He failed to send Pope reinforcements when Pope attempted another attack on Richmond and Pope was soundly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862.

Despite his dissatisfaction with McClellan's failure to reinforce Pope, Lincoln was desperate, and restored him to command of all forces around Washington, to the dismay of many. Two days after McClellan's return to command, General Robert E. Lee's forces crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, leading to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. The Union army won a costly victory. The battle was among the bloodiest in American history, but it was a victory that Lincoln wanted, in order to announce that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation in January. Lincoln had composed the Proclamation some time earlier, but had waited for a military victory to publish it.

Lincoln ordered McClellan to pursue Lee's retreating and exposed army, but McClellan refused to do so. Similarly, General Don Carlos Buell refused orders to move the Army of the Ohio against rebel forces in eastern Tennessee. As a result, Lincoln replaced Buell with William Rosecrans and after the 1862 midterm elections, he replaced McClellan with Republican Ambrose Burnside.

Burnside, against the advice of the president, prematurely launched an offensive across the Rappahannock River and was stunningly defeated by Lee at Fredericksburg in December. Desertions during 1863 were in the thousands and they increased after Fredericksburg. Lincoln then brought in Joseph Hooker, known as "Fighting Joe." Hooker had been quoted by a New York Times army correspondent as saying that "Nothing would go right until we had a dictator, and the sooner the better." Lincoln wrote a letter to Hooker, in which he said:

"I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

The mid-term elections in 1862 brought the Republicans severe losses due to sharp disfavor with the administration over its failure to deliver a speedy end to the war. The Emancipation Proclamation announced in September gained votes for the Republicans in the rural areas of New England and the upper Midwest, but it lost votes in the cities and the lower Midwest. The Republicans lost support, but managed to hold their majorities in Congress.

Hooker was routed by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May. He maintained his command and ignored Lincoln's order to divide his troops, in order to force Lee to do the same. Hooker tendered his resignation, which Lincoln accepted.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862, following the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam earlier that month. It was to come into effect on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared that all slaves in the 10 states not then under Union control would be free, with exemptions specified for areas already under Union control in two states. It did not free any slaves in the border states. In response, Democrats rallied their voters in the 1862 off-year elections by warning voters about the threat that freed slaves posed to northern whites.

Once the abolition of slavery in the rebel states became a stated military objective, slaves were freed as Union armies advanced south. When he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper." A few days after Emancipation was announced, thirteen Republican governors met at the War Governors' Conference. They expressed support for the Proclamation, but asked Lincoln to remove General George B. McClellan as commander of the Union Army.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Union Army adopted the practice of enlisting former slaves. By the spring of 1863, Lincoln was ready to recruit African-American troops in significant numbers. In a letter to Andrew Johnson, who was, at the time, the military governor of Tennessee, Lincoln encouraged Johnson to lead the way in raising black troops. Lincoln wrote, "The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once". By the end of 1863, on Lincoln's direction, General Lorenzo Thomas had recruited 20 regiments of African-American soldiers from the Mississippi Valley.

no title

With the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lincoln planned an address at the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery on November 19, 1863. He was not the main speaker and predicted that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," but he was wrong about that. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address became the most quoted speech in American history. In 272 words, and three minutes, Lincoln told his audience that the nation was "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". He told them that the war as an effort dedicated to these principles of liberty and equality for all. He assured his audience that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth".

When General George Meade failed to capture Robert E. Lee's army as it retreated from Gettysburg, Lincoln decided that another change in command was needed. Lincoln had been pleased with General Ulysses S. Grant, who had obtained victories at the Battle of Shiloh and in the Vicksburg campaign. Although Grant was mistrusted by his former commander Henry Halleck, who was advising Lincoln, the President still believed Grant to be a strong candidate to head the Union Army.

Lincoln believed that Grant was the commander who could get the Union Army to aggressively pursue the Confederates. It was also a bonus that Grant agreed with Lincoln's views on the use of black troops. Lincoln had some hesitation because there were rumors that Grant might be considering running for President in 1864. Lincoln made discreet inquiries about Grant's political intentions, and when he was assured that Grant had no such ambitions, Lincoln submitted Grant's promotion to commander of the Union Army for Congress's consent, which he obtained. Congress agreed to promote Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General, a rank which no officer had held since George Washington.

After meeting with the President, Grant began the bloody Overland Campaign in 1864. Grant told Lincoln that he preferred to command from the field rather than from Washington. The overland campaign resulted in high casualties on both sides at battles such as the Battle of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. The high casualty figures of the Union alarmed the North, as Grant lost a third of his army. When Lincoln asked what Grant's plans were, Grant replied, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." He knew that the Confederacy lacked reinforcements, so Lee's army shrank with every battle. This strategy earned Grant the nickname "Grant the Butcher" from his detractors.

Grant's army moved south and crossed the James River. It conducted a campaign of siege and trench warfare outside of Petersburg, Virginia. Lincoln made an extended visit to Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia (depicted in the drawing below). This allowed the president to confer in person with Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman about the hostilities.

Lincoln authorized Grant to target the Confederate infrastructure. Plantations, railroads, and bridges were all targets. The goal was to destroy the South's morale and weaken its economic ability to continue fighting. Grant's move to Petersburg resulted in the obstruction of three railroads between Richmond and the South. This strategy allowed Generals Sherman and Philip Sheridan to destroy plantations and towns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Sherman conducted his famous "March to the Sea" through Georgia in 1864.

Meanwhile, Confederate general Jubal Anderson Early began a series of assaults in the North that threatened the Capital. During Early's raid on Washington, D.C. in 1864, Lincoln was watching the combat from an exposed position. A young Captain named Oliver Wendell Holmes (who would later become a very famous Justice of the United States Supreme Court) shouted at Lincoln, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!"

The high rate of casualties in the Overland Campaign would become an issue in the election of 1864, an election that Lincoln actually believed that he was going to lose. Lincoln wrote a letter in the summer of 1864, which he sealed in an envelope. The letter read as follows:

"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward."

Lincoln did not show the pledge to his cabinet, but he asked them to sign the sealed envelope.

But a series of political and military events turned the tide in Lincoln's re-election prospects. Former Republican Candidate General John C. Frémont's had considered running against Lincoln, but Frémont was appalled at the Democratic platform, which he called "union with slavery." Frémont withdrew from the race in September 1864. He said at the time of his withdrawal that winning the Civil War was too important to divide the Republican vote. While he believed that Lincoln was not going far enough, the possible election of Democratic Candidate and former army commander George B. McClellan was the greater evil.

On September 2, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta. Admiral David Farragut also captured the city of Mobile, Alabama. This was a major turning point in the war, and voters appeared to now be convinced that a Union military victory was inevitable and close at hand. In the election, held on November 8, 1864, Lincoln won every state except three: Kentucky, Delaware, and McClellan's home state of New Jersey. A number of states allowed soldiers to cast ballots: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. In other states, soldiers from those states were given leave from the army to go home and vote. Out of the 40,247 army votes cast, Lincoln received 30,503 (75.8%), McClellan 9,201 (22.9%), and 543 votes (1.3%) went to other candidates. The only state where McClellan won a majority of soldiers votes was Kentucky. In total, Lincoln received 212 electoral votes, compared to 21 for McClellan.

Lee's Surrender.jpg

As the Civil War continued into 1865, Robert E. Lee’s army continued to fight a series of battles in the Appomattox Campaign against the Union Army led by Ulysses Grant. The fighting stretched the Confederate lines of defense thin. Most of the Confederate Army that remained were in small sections in a thirty mile area around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Lee's troops were exhausted defending this line and Grant took advantage of the situation and with a series of attacks on this poorly defended front.

Lee's final stand took place at Appomattox Court House. Major General John B. Gordon's depleted corps and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry formed line of battle there and Lee planned one last attempt to escape the closing Union army in an effort to reach his supplies at Lynchburg. At first, the Confederates drove back General Phillip Sheridan's cavalry, but when Grant's infantry arrived, the Confederate advance was stopped. Lee's outnumbered army was now surrounded on three sides. Seeing no other option, Lee surrendered his army at 3 p.m. on April 9th. He accepted the terms that Grant had proposed by letter the previous day.

News of the surrender reached Washington and jubilation ensued. The next day, despite rainy weather and muddy streets, a crown of 3,000 people took to the streets celebrating the end of the war. Crowds serenaded President Lincoln throughout the day. But Lincoln would not savor the victory for long. Five days later, while attending the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, Lincoln was shot by actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth. He died the following morning on April 15, 1865.

Thomas Jefferson: The First Populist President

Thomas Jefferson a populist before that term was really in use. Much in his history suggests an approach of championing the rights of the individual over the rights of the elite. For example, in 1776 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, criticism of King George III for how the king was treating the colonists was something very much on Jefferson's mind. When the declaration he wrote was introduced to the Continental Congress on Friday, June 28, and congress began debate over its contents on Monday, July 1, Jefferson was unhappy that almost a quarter of the text was deleted, including a passage critical of King George III and of the slave trade. Privately, Jefferson resented the changes, but he did not speak publicly about them. On July 4, 1776, the Congress ratified the Declaration, and delegates signed it on August 2, knowing that in doing so, they were committing an act of treason against the Crown. Jefferson's preamble contained the famous phrase "all men are created equal", perhaps his first formal pronouncement that he was for the common man and not for any elite.

no title

Jefferson was in France from 1784 to 1789. As the French Revolution began, Jefferson allowed his Paris residence, the Hôtel de Langeac, to be used for meetings by French republicans. He was in Paris during the storming of the Bastille and was consulted about the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Jefferson left Paris in September 1789. He planned to return some day, but was unable to do so when President George Washington appointed him as the country's first Secretary of State. Jefferson remained a firm supporter of the French Revolution, though he did not support some of the Revolution's more violent aspects.

While a member of Washington's Cabinet, Jefferson consistently opposed the idea of a powerful central government. He opposed a national debt, preferring that each state retire its own portion of that debt, in contrast to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to see a consolidation of the states' debts by the federal government. Hamilton also had wanted to establish the national credit and create a national bank. Jefferson strenuously opposed this.

In the Spring of 1791, Jefferson and Congressman James Madison took a vacation to Vermont, ostensibly on a botanical mission, but really for the purposes of political scheming. In May 1792, Jefferson he wrote to Washington, urging him to run for re-election that year as a unifying influence. He urged Washington to rally the citizenry to a party that would defend democracy against the corrupting influence of banks and monied interests. Many historians consider this letter as the earliest formal expression of Democratic-Republican Party principles. Jefferson, Madison, and other Democratic-Republican organizers favored states' rights and local control and opposed federal concentration of power, whereas Hamilton sought more power for the federal government.

Jefferson supported France against Britain when the two nations fought in 1793. His arguments in the Cabinet lost credibility when French Revolutionary envoy Edmond-Charles Genêt's took actions to try to undermine Washington's policy of neutrality the the war between France and England. Washington demanded that Genest be recalled by France, but later ended up granting Genest asylum after it appeared that a guillotine would be his fate when he returned to Paris.

After the Washington administration negotiated the Jay Treaty with Great Britain (1794), Jefferson saw a cause around which to rally his party and the populace. He organized a national opposition to the treaty. The Treaty passed, but it expired in 1805 during Jefferson's administration and was not renewed.

Jefferson ran for President against John Adams in 1796, finishing second in the electoral vote, which, at that time meant that he would become Vice-President. He spent four years undermining the Federalists, who rebuilt the military, levied new taxes, and enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson believed that these laws were intended to suppress Democratic-Republicans, rather than prosecute enemy aliens, and considered them unconstitutional. To rally opposition, he and James Madison anonymously wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, declaring that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it by the states. In these resolutions, Jefferson advocated nullification, allowing states to invalidate federal laws altogether. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were later used by Confederate states to justify their secession during the Civil War.

Jefferson and Madison moved to Philadelphia and founded the National Gazette in 1791, and hired poet and writer Phillip Freneau as its editor. The National Gazette criticized the policies promoted by Alexander Hamilton through anonymous essays which were actually written by Madison. In the election of 1800 Jefferson once more ran against Federalist John Adams. Adams' campaign was weakened by unpopular taxes and vicious Federalist infighting over his actions in the Quasi-War. Republicans pointed to the Alien and Sedition Acts and accused the Federalists of being secret monarchists. The election is considered to be one of the most acrimonious in American history. Republicans ultimately won more electoral college votes, but Jefferson and his vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr unexpectedly received an equal total. Due to the tie, the election was decided by the Federalist-dominated House of Representatives. Hamilton actually lobbied Federalist representatives on Jefferson's behalf, believing him a lesser political evil than Burr. On February 17, 1801, after thirty-six ballots, the House elected Jefferson president and Burr vice president.

no title

Jefferson was re-elected President in 1804, serving only two terms in deference to the example set by George Washington. He is most likely the first populist American President, and in fact a 1983 book containing many of Jefferson's writings, edited by Martin Larson asserts as much by its title, Jefferson: Magnificent Populist. Jeffersonians were deeply committed to Republicanism in the United States, which was defined as meaning opposition to aristocracy of any form, opposition to corruption, insistence on virtue, with a priority for the interests of farmers, planters, and "plain folk". They were antagonistic to the aristocratic elitism of merchants, bankers and manufacturers, they distrusted factory workers, and supporters of the British system of government. Jeffersonian democracy persisted as an element of the Democratic Party into the early 20th century, as evidenced by the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the three presidential candidacies of William Jennings Bryan. Its themes continue to echo in the 21st century.

Herbert Hoover: The Depression President

In an era before George Gallup began polling Americans about the approval rating of their President, Herbert Hoover was probably the most unpopular president during his time in office. The Great Depression was ravaging the nation and Americans expected their President to do something to fix the problem. Contrary to popular belief, Hoover tried. But the problem was too big. As unemployment rose, banks failed and people lost their savings and their farms, people blamed Hoover. Hoover's name became synonymous with hard economic times, and an entire Hoover lexicon developed to mock the unfortunate president. Here are some examples of depression era terms that attached themselves to Hoover's name:

Hooverville: a collection of shacks or shanties in which the poor sought shelter
Hoover Wagon, Hoover Buggy or Hoover Cart: an automobile which had its engine removed and was pulled by horses
Hoover Blanket: a newspaper covering a sleeping person
Hoover Flag: a person's empty pockets pulled out
Hoover Leather: cardboard used to line a shoe when the soles wore through.

no title

That Hoover came to be so despised as a Chief Executive was so surprising, given the expectations for great things that he carted into office. Once, every one had wanted Hoover to President. Both political parties hoped that he would run as their candidate. It seemed that Hoover had the Midas touch, he succeeded at everything he did. He was a successful engineer, businessman, and self-made millionaire. Surely the 31st president of the United States from would be one of the greatest ever, many people thought. But the Great Depression had other ideas.

Herbert Clark Hoover was born to a Quaker family in West Branch, Iowa, in August of 1874. His father was a blacksmith and his mother was a Canadian! He was orphaned at age 10 and was raised by a paternal uncle who was a physician in Oregon. He graduated from Stanford University in 1895 with a degree in geology and took a position with a London-based mining company. His career took him all over the world, including to China where he was caught in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion. By 1914 he was worth over $4 million (over $100 million today) at a time when there weren't many millionaires in the world. After the outbreak of World War I, he became the head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an international relief organization that provided food to occupied Belgium. When the U.S. entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to lead the Food Administration, and Hoover became known as the country's "food czar". After the war, Hoover led the American Relief Administration, which provided food to the inhabitants of Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Hoover's war-time service made him a favorite of many progressives.

After the 1920 election, President Warren G. Harding appointed Hoover as Secretary of Commerce and Hoover continued to serve under President Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in 1923. Hoover was an unusually active and visible cabinet member. He was called "Secretary of Commerce and Under-Secretary of all other departments". Hoover was a strong proponent of the development of radio and air travel. He led the federal response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In spite of this, he and Coolidge did not get along very well. Coolidge once quipped that Hoover had given him plenty of unsolicited advice, "all of it bad."

With popularity as someone who could do no wrong, Hoover won the Republican nomination in the 1928 presidential election, and decisively defeated the Democratic candidate, Al Smith. Then came the stock market crash, which occurred shortly after Hoover took office. Hoover had great plans for the nation and had predicted in his inaugural address that the end of poverty was in sight. He was wrong of course, and the Great Depression became the central issue of his presidency.

Many believe that Hoover sat back and did nothing about the depression, expecting that the market would correct itself. His Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was the real advocate of the "leave-it-alone" approach. Hoover called a number of business leaders to Washington to urge them not to lay off workers or cut wages. He began a number of public works programs, and increased the Federal Buildings program to spur public works construction. In July 1930 he approved the expenditure of a giant $915 million public works program, which included construction of what would become known as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. But none of this helped. When the Bonus Army, a group of veterans of the first world war, marched into Washington demanding early payment of money not yet owing to them, General Douglas MacArthur ordered them cleared out and some protesters were killed. The public blamed Hoover for this, even though MacArthur had exceeded his orders. They saw this as Hoover being insensitive to the poor. When this occurred, FDR knew that Hoover was toast.


Hoover was decisively defeated by Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. It was a bitter loss for Hoover and on the ride from the White House to FDR's inauguration, Hoover refused to speak to his successor. Hoover enjoyed one of the longest retirements of any former president, and he authored numerous works. But he always tried to argue that he was right in his approach to fixing the problems of the Depression. After leaving office, Hoover became increasingly conservative, and he strongly criticized Roosevelt's foreign policy and New Deal domestic agenda. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover's public reputation was rehabilitated as he served for Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower in various assignments, including a humanitarian project to bring relief to those starving in Europe in the aftermath of World War 2. Hoover died in 1964 at the age of 90.

Hoover was extremely unpopular when he left office after the 1932 election, and his historical reputation as President would not improve until the 1970s. Historians give Hoover good marks for his genuine belief in voluntarism and cooperation, as well as the innovation of some of his programs. But some historians believe that Hoover failed to recognize the severity of the Great Depression, while others see this criticism as an unfair one. Hoover is not well regarded for his criticism of his successor's New Deal Programs, especially among those who benefited from those programs. Historian Nicholas Lemann called Hoover "the man who managed to turn a Republican country into a Democratic one." Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Hoover in the bottom third of presidents. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Hoover as the 36th best president, the same rank he received in a 2017 C-Span poll of historians.

Although Hoover is generally considered to have had a failed presidency, he is praised for his actions as a humanitarian. His biographer Glen Jeansonne calls Hoover "one of the most extraordinary Americans of modern times". As Jeansonne puts it, Hoover "led a life that was a prototypical Horatio Alger story, except that Horatio Alger stories stop at the pinnacle of success." Another recent biographer, Kenneth Whyte, puts it like this: "The question of where Hoover belongs in the American political tradition remains a loaded one to this day. While he clearly played important roles in the development of both the progressive and conservative traditions, neither side will embrace him for fear of contamination with the other."

Hoover is remembered at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, located in West Branch, Iowa next to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. The Hoover–Minthorn House, where Hoover lived from 1885 to 1891, is another memorial to him, located in Newberg, Oregon. His Rapidan fishing camp in Virginia, which he donated to the government in 1933, is now a National Historic Landmark within the Shenandoah National Park. The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House, built in 1919 in Stanford, California, is the official residence of the president of Stanford University, and also a National Historic Landmark. Also located at Stanford is the Hoover Institution, a think tank and research institution began by Hoover.

Hoover has been memorialized in the names of several things, including the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and numerous elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States. He has even had two minor planets named after him: 932 Hooveria and 1363 Herberta. The Polish capital of Warsaw has a square named after Hoover, and the historic townsite of Gwalia, Western Australia contains the Hoover House Bed and Breakfast, where Hoover resided while managing and visiting the mine located near the community. A medicine ball game known as Hooverball is named for Hoover. It was invented by White House physician Admiral Joel T. Boone to help Hoover get some exercise while serving as president.

But like a millstone around his neck, Hoover continues to shoulder the blame for the Great Depression. In the 1976 musical Annie, set in the Depression, one of the musical numbers is entitled We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover. It sarcastically thanks Hoover for creating the conditions that the characters are living in, telling him "you made us what we are today." As one stanza goes:

In ev'ry pot he said "a chicken"
But Herbert Hoover he forgot
Not only don't we have the chicken
We ain't got the pot!

Happy Birthday Harry Truman

On May 8, 1884 (138 years ago today) Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was born in Lamar, Missouri. If you're wondering what the "S" stands for, it doesn't stand for anything. His parents chose "S" as his middle initial to please both of his grandfathers, Anderson "Shipp" Truman and Solomon Young. Apparently this was a common practice among the Scots-Irish at the time.

no title

Truman was the final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the ticket was elected in 1944. Truman succeeded Roosevelt as President on April 12, 1945 when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. It is said that when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that her husband had died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, Truman's first concern was for Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked her if there was anything he could do for her. She replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now!"

Truman spent most of his youth on his family's farm in Missouri. During World War I, Truman served in combat in France as an artillery officer in his National Guard unit. He had poor eyesight but got into the army by memorizing the eye chart. After the war, he owned a haberdashery and joined the Democratic Party, which at the time was run by local political boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Missouri. He was first elected to public office as a county official, and in 1935 became U.S. senator. At first his fellow senators were skeptical of Truman's ability, but he gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, which exposed waste, fraud, and corruption in wartime contracts.

Germany surrendered a few weeks after Truman became President, but the war with Japan was expected to last another year or more. Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, justifying this controversial decision by his belief that doing so would spare American lives that would otherwise be lost in an invasion. Working closely with Congress, Truman assisted in the founding of the United Nations. He issued the Truman Doctrine which was intended to contain the spread of communism. With his support, Congress passed the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.

Former wartime ally the Soviet Union became a peacetime enemy, and the Cold War began. Truman supported the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he immediately sent in U.S. troops and gained United Nations support for the Korean War. After initial success, the UN forces were thrown back when the Chinese intervened on the side of communist North Korea, and the conflict was stalemated through the final years of Truman's presidency.

On domestic issues, Truman often faced opposition from a conservative Congress dominated by the South. Truman said that civil rights was a moral priority, and he submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress in 1948. He issued Executive Orders to start racial integration of the military and federal agencies. In 1948 he was a sort of political Lazarus, winning election to the presidency in his own right, after newspapers had predicted his defeat and one large newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, even went so far as to print a headline on election day that his opponent Thomas Dewey had won the election.

Truman's term from 1948-52 was a rough one. Corruption in Truman's administration was linked to some members of his cabinet and senior White House staff. This and his failure to make progress in the Korean War precipitated his decision not to seek re-election. He left office with low approval ratings, but gained popularity in retirement as an elder statesman.

On December 5, 1972, Truman was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital and Medical Center with lung congestion from pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure and died at 7:50 am on December 26, 1972 at the age of 88.

Harry Truman: The Labor Fighting President

The end of World War II brought the return home of soldiers who had been serving overseas. The transition from war to a peacetime economy was not an easy one and it brought with it some perplexing economic challenges. The costs of the war effort had been enormous, and when the war's end arrived, President Harry Truman was determined to decreasing the amount of government military expenditures as quickly as possible. Demobilizing the military and reducing the size of the armed forces was a huge cost-savings to the federal government, but it brought with it some economic uncertainty. Perhaps the biggest fear was that the end of the war would mean a return of the era of the great depression. Many believed that wartime spending had brought the nation out of its previous economic catastrophe, and now that the war was over, hard times would return with a vengeance.


Truman called on his economic advisers to plan how to transition from a wartime economy to peacetime production of goods, without mass unemployment for returning veterans. Unfortunately, economists rarely agree on what the best measures to take are, and Truman's advisers did not have a clear consensus as to what economic course the postwar U.S. economy should chart. To add to his problems, Truman faced a Congress that was no longer unified against a foreign enemy and factional politics were back in play. Truman faced a combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats that formed powerful voting blocs.

The return of soldiers to peacetime employment was complicated for Truman, as labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, began to reemerge. Labor-management peace was seen as patriotic when the war was on, but now that the war was over, laborers whose wages were kept low now wanted to play catch up. This meant increased prices and inflation. The nation also had severe shortages in housing and consumer products for returning servicemen. At one point, the inflation rate hit 6% in a single month.

As if Truman didn't have enough problems, the nation was hit with a wave of destabilizing strikes in major industries. Many people viewed Truman's response to these strikes as ineffective. When wartime price and wage controls were removed, the nation saw a rapid increase in costs on most items, and labor sought wage increases to keep up with the increased cost of living.

Perhaps the most notorious of these strikes was the steel strike which began in January 1946. It involved 800,000 workers and it was the largest strike in the nation's history. This was followed by a coal strike in April and a rail strike in May. The strikes were met with a wave of anger from the public. Polling showed that a majority of people favored a ban on strikes by public service workers and a year's moratorium on labor actions generally.

For some commodities, price controls remained in place. This led to producers being unwilling to sell their products at artificially low prices. Farmers refused to sell grain for months in 1945 and 1946 until payments were significantly increased, even though grain was desperately needed, not just at home, but to those starving in post-war Europe.

When a national rail strike threatened in May 1946, Truman took action. He issued an executive order in which seized control of the railroads. On August 25, 1946 he issued his order putting America’s railroads under the control of the U.S. Army, as of August 27, at 4:00 p.m. Two key railway unions ignored Truman's edict and struck anyway, leading to a shutdown in the entire national railroad system. Some 24,000 freight trains and 175,000 passenger trains stopped moving each day. For two days public anger mounted, with the angriest man in the country being one Harry S. Truman. He drafted a message to Congress that actually called for drastic action against union leaders, including hanging them if necessary. He wrote:

"Every single one of the strikers and their demagogue leaders have been living in luxury. Now I want you who are my comrades in arms to come with me and eliminate the Lewises, the Whitneys, the Johnstons, the Communist Bridges [the leading union officials of the day] and the Russian Senators and Representatives. Let's put transportation and production back to work, hang a few traitors and make our own country safe for democracy."

Fortunately Truman had cooler heads around him. His top aide Clark Clifford rewrote and toned down the speech to Congress. Truman addressed Congress and called for a new law to draft all the railroad strikers into the Army. News of his request had leaked in advance and as he was concluding his speech, a message was dramatically handed to him that said the strike was settled on the president's terms. Truman nevertheless finished the speech, and a few hours later the House voted to draft the strikers. The bill was killed in the Senate.

Truman's calls for drastic measures seemed to have an effect on labor militancy. But even after the settlement of the railway strike, more labor unrest continued. Truman's approval rating dropped from 82% in January 1946 to 52% by June. This was followed by large Democratic losses in the 1946 midterm elections, when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time since 1930. The 80th Congress included Republican freshmen included Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and California Congressman Richard Nixon.

Truman's unpopularity continued, dropping to 32% in the polls. Democratic Arkansas Senator William Fulbright suggested that Truman resign. In response, the unflappable Truman told the media that he did not care what Senator "Halfbright" had to say.

Truman's dealings with the new Republican-controlled Congress were amicable when it came to foreign policy, but he fought them bitterly on domestic issues. To control the power of the labor unions, the Republican congress passed the Taft–Hartley Act, and the law was enacted in spite of Truman's veto. Truman twice vetoed bills to lower income tax rates in 1947. Although the initial vetoes were sustained, Congress overrode his veto of a tax cut bill in 1948.

As the 1948 election approached, Truman stuck to his roots as a New Deal Democrat. He called for national health insurance, and repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act. He also called for an aggressive civil rights program. All of these measures were known by what Truman called the "Fair Deal." It was met with opposition from many sides including Republicans and by southern Democrats in states still enforced segregation. It looked like Truman did not have a snowball's chance in hell of being elected President in 1948, given all the labor unrest and the split in his own party. And then came election day of 1948. But that's another story.

no title

Truman's labor troubles didn't end in his first term. On September 8, 1950, Congress passed the Defense Production Act. Part of this law permitted the president to requisition any facilities, property, equipment, supplies, component parts of raw materials needed for the national defense. It also gave the president the authority to impose wage and price controls in essential industries related to national defense.

On September 9, Truman issued Executive Order 10161, which established the Economic Stabilization Agency. This agency was tasked with coordinating and supervising wage and price controls. Based on the wage and price control model developed in World War II, Truman created two sub-agencies: (1) the Office of Price Stabilization (OPS) was given the power to regulate prices; and (2) the Wage Stabilization Board (WSB) oversaw the creation of wage stabilization rules. By October 1950, inflation had abated and shortages were easing.

When China entered the Korean War on behalf of North Korea on October 19, and fought with American troops on October 25, the Truman administration accelerated its rearmament plans, and the economy went into an upward inflationary spiral. By December, public support for the war had fallen significantly. Truman declared a national emergency on December 16, 1950.

In response to a labor unrest that resulted from the bitter disagreements over wage and price controls, Truman instructed his Secretary of Commerce, Charles W. Sawyer, to take control of a number of the nation's steel mills in April 1952. Truman said that his authority as Commander in Chief and the need to maintain an uninterrupted supply of steel for munitions for the war in Korea justified the move.

But Truman's plan was thwarted when the Supreme Court found Truman's actions unconstitutional and reversed the order in its decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The 6–3 decision held that Truman's assertion of authority was too vague and was not rooted in any legislative action by Congress. Ironically the decision was delivered by a Court composed entirely of Justices appointed by either Truman or Franklin Roosevelt. The high court's reversal of Truman's order was one of the notable defeats of his presidency. He did not run for re-election in 1952.