The Legacy of Slavery: The Birth of the Republican Party

Many people consider March 20, 1854 to be the date of birth of the Republican Party. It was on that day, at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, that a group of anti-slavery activists held what is considered by many as the first public meeting of the party. In the course of the debate over the Nebraska bill, a man named Alvan Earl Bovay (pictured below) wrote to Horace Greeley on February 26, 1854, urging Greeley to use his newspaper, the New York Tribune, to call together every opponent of the Nebraska bill and unite them under the name Republican. A preliminary meeting was called by Bovay on March 1st, 1854 and it was resolved that if the Nebraska bill passed, a new party opposed to the principles of the bill should be formed. Greeley responded offering some support for the idea, but did not mention it in his paper.


Bovay was born in Adams, Jefferson County, New York, on July 12, 1818. he was graduated from Norwich University in Vermont at age 23 and began a career as a teached in New York state. He later became Professor of Languages in the Bristol Military Academy before reading law and teaching school in new York City. It was there that he became secretary of the National Reform Association. He met and became a friend of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Bovay was admitted to the bar in Utica, N. Y., in 1846. In late 1850, he he moved to Wisconsin and settled in Ripon where he began the practice of law. He became a member of the Whig Party, but could see the writing on the wall which predicted that party's disintegration.

During the National Whig Convention in 1852, Bovay was visiting in New York City, where he met Greeley for lunch in the Lovejoy Hotel. Bovay correctly predicted that General Winfield Scott would be chosen as the Whig Party's presidential nominee, even though at the time Scott was not in the lead. Greeley felt confident of a Whig victory in the next election, while Bovay (once again correctly) predicted the defeat of the Whig party. The issue of slavery had become as much of a political as of a moral issue, and Bovay told Greeley that it was time for the formation of a new party that would bring together all of the anti-slavery elements of all of the other parties. When asked by Greeley what name he would give to the new party, Bovay suggested the name "Republican."

Bovay returned to Wisconsin and continued to support the Whig party. His prediction about the defeat of General Scott came true, and after the presidential election of 1852 the Whig party disintegrated. Many of the old party members joined the new American or "Know-Nothing" party that had just been organized. This was a time of intense polarization and unrest throughout the country and a time when people seemed to be losing confidence in their political leaders.

During the Congressional session of 1853-54, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois introduced the "Kansas- Nebraska Bill". The bill caused a storm of indignation from the anti-slavery factions in the North. Bovay and his followers were convinced that the time had come to take some form of action. On February 26, 1854, when the Nebraska Bill was before the senate, Bovay wrote to Greeley explaining how- strong the feeling was in his area against the Nebraska Bill. He told Greeley that since the New York Tribune was the leading paper in the country, he urged him to mount a call for unity among the bill's opponents. Bovay told Greeley that these groups should band them together under the name Republican

Bovay called for a meeting in Ripon. The meeting's notice read: "NEBRASKA. A meeting wall be held at 6:30 o'clock this Wednesday evening at the Congregational Church in the Village of Ripon to remonstrate against the Nebraska swindle." This meeting was held on Wednesday, March 1, 1854. At the meeting a resolution was adopted, which read as follows:

"Resolved, That of all the outrages hitherto perpetrated or attempted upon the North and freedom by the slave leaders and their natural allies, not one com¬ pares in bold and impudent audacity, treachery and meanness with this, the Nebraska Bill; as to the sum of all its villainies it adds the repudiation of a solemn compact held as sacred as the constitution itself for a period of thirty- four years."

A resolution was also adopted which stated that if the Nebraska Bill, then pending in the senate, should pass, they would cast off their old party organizations and form a new party directly opposed to the principles of the Nebraska Bill. On March 3 the Nebraska Bill passed the Senate. Bovay decided to call a second meeting for more definite action and to attempt to create a new party. Greeley's letter in reply, dated March 7, agreed with the plan of organizing a party if there was sufficient public support, but Greeley did not make any mention of the idea in the Tribune.

The second meeting was held in the school-house of district No. 2 on Monday evening, March 20, 1854. Bovay personally went from house to house and from business to business. He even stopped halted men on the street to get their names for the meeting. Out of the 100 voters in Ripon, 54 showed up to the meeting, composed mainly of Whigs, Democrats and Free-Soil party members. They met at 6:30 p. m., filling the school-house. After length deliberation, a formal vote was held and committees of the Free-Soil and Whig parties were dissolved and a the committee of the new party was formed.

The Nebraska Bill passed the House on May 22, 1854. The next day about thirty anti-slavery members of the House of Representatives from both of the major parties held a meeting and discussed organizing a new party under the name "Republican". President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.

On June 7, 1854, a state convention was held in Strong, Maine for prohibitionists and anti-slavery Democrats. At this meeting C. J. Talbot, the presiding officer, delivered an address calling for a combination of these two parties with the old-line Whigs under the name of "The Republican Party." This suggestion had considerable support. Today Maine Republicans claim that this was the first time that the name Republican Party was used in a public assembly, though this in contradicted by the reports of Bovay's gathering in Wisconsin. A convention was held in Strong on August 7, 1854, and the name Republican was adopted for the party.

On June 12 Bovay once again wrote to Greeley urging him to put forth the name Republican into his publication. On June 24, an article appeared in the Weekly Tribune, entitled "Party Names and Public Duty," in which the editor recommended the name Republican, previously suggested to him by Mr. Bovay, to designate those who had united to pursue the goals of anti-slavery. Greeley learned that a convention had been called in Michigan to protest the Nebraska Bill and he wrote to Mr. Jacob M. Howard, suggesting that the convention adopt the name Republican for the party that he thought was about to be formed. The Anti-Nebraska convention in Michigan met at Jackson on July 6 and gave the name Republican to the party.

Several other state conventions followed uniting opposition to the Nebraska bill. At such conventions, both Wisconsin and Vermont chose the name Republican. In July Asher N. Cole, editor of an Alleghany County New York newspaper, called a mass meeting of anti-slavery voters at Friendship in that county. It also adopted the name Republican Party and for years afterward in western New York, Cole was referred to as the "Father of the Republican Party." A convention of anti-slavery men was held in New York state on August 16, and another on .September 27. A convention was also held in Massachusetts on September 7. The anti-slavery state conventions which were held during the summer and fall of 1854 resulted in an electoral changes in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Fifteen states showed anti-slavery pluralities in the House and eleven Senators were either elected as Republicans voted with the new party.

An informal convention for the purpose of creating a national organization was held in Pittsburgh, on February 22, 1856. This convention met in response to a call issued by the chairmen of the Republican state committees of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Twenty-four delegates were present and the name Republican was adopted for the national party. Delegates declared that the object and purpose of the new party was its opposition to the extension of slavery into free territory. Present at this convention were Horace Greeley and Abraham Lincoln. At this convention a Republican National Committee was formed.

The first national delegate convention met in Philadelphia on June 17, 1856, selected because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The convention nominated John C. Fremont of California for President and William L. Dayton of New Jersey for Vice-President. Meanwhile, opposition to the Nebraska Bill was growing within the Democratic Party also. Opponents included Salmon Chase of Ohio, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Edward Wade of Ohio, Gerrit Smith of New York, and Preston King also of New York. Chase and Sumner had been considered as presidential candidates for the new party, but each requested that his name be withdrawn from nomination.


Although Fremont lost the election of 1856, it was clear that his position was the prevailing one in the free states and that slavery had become an intensely polarizing issue. In the free states, there was a three-way campaign, which Frémont won with 45.2% of the vote to 41.5% for Democrat James Buchanan and 13.3% for Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore. In these states, Frémont received 114 electoral votes to 62 for Buchanan. In the slave states, however, Fremont was shut out. Buchanan won 56.1% of the vote to 43.8% for Fillmore and 0.1% for Frémont. Buchanan won 112 electoral votes, compared to 8 for Fillmore. Nationwide, Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, enough for a majority. Frémont received no votes in ten of the fourteen slave states with a popular vote. He received votes in only four slave states: 306 in Delaware, 285 in Maryland, 283 in Virginia, and 314 in Kentucky.

The Legacy of Slavery: The Liberty Party

The Free Soil Party wasn't the only anti-slavery party to form and run a presidential candidate in the antebellum area. As the nation began to awaken to see the obvious moral wrong in one human being enslaving another, pockets of these morally minded persons began to form and organize political opposition to the "peculiar institution." One of the most prominent was the Liberty Party. The Liberty Party was a political party which fielded a candidate for President of the the United States in the elections of 1840, 1844, 1848, 1852 and 1856. The Liberty Party was an early advocate of the abolitionist cause. It broke away from the American Anti-Slavery Society over a dispute about the Constitution. The Liberty Party believed that that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document, while William Lloyd Garrison and others in the American Anti-Slavery Society believed that the Constitution should be was an evil pro-slavery document. The Liberty Party was composed of abolitionists who were willing to work politically to try to bring about an end to slavery, while Garrison's abolitionists opposed voting.


The Liberty Party was formed in November of 1839. Its first national convention took place in Arcade, New York on April 1, 1840. The party nominated James G. Birney, a Kentuckian and former slaveholder, for President in 1840 and 1844. Birney had once worked for Henry Clay's campaign. He moved to Alabama where he purchased a cotton plantation, operated by slaves, some of which he had brought with him from Kentucky. He was a supporter of the American Colonization Society, an organization whose goal was to transport slaves back to live in Africa. In 1833, he was convinced by a number of Christian organizations that abolition of slavery was the morally correct option. He freed his remaining slaves and declared himself an abolitionist in 1834. He broke with the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 and was a founding member of the Liberty Party.

In the 1840 election, the Liberty party did not attract much support. Birney received about 7000 votes, and he was not even in the country when the election was held. Shortly after his nomination, Birney left for England where he made a number of speaking engagements about abolitionism. The party was not much of a force in that election.

It was in the 1844 election that the Liberty party had a greater impact. The party received 62,103 votes, about 2.3% of the popular vote. But it gained a lot of support in the state of New York. Many people believe that the Liberty Party drew votes which would have otherwise gone to Henry Clay. As a result, James K. Polk won the state of New York where Birney received 15,800 votes in New York. Polk won New York by 5,100 votes. If Clay had won New York, he would have had the majority of electoral votes, not Polk.

In 1848, political sentiment was stirred up by the Wilmot Proviso, a proposal by Pennsylvania Senator David Wilmot that slavery would not be permitted in the land acquired in the Mexican War. The "Barnburner" anti-slavery faction of New York Democrats split off from the rest of the Democratic party. This resulted in the possibility of forming a much larger and more influential political grouping devoted to anti-slavery goals. Many Liberty Party members met in Buffalo, New York with other groups in August 1848 to form the Free Soil Party, a party that was opposed to slavery, but was not strictly speaking abolitionist. A minority which was not willing to merge with the Free Soil Party nominated Gerrit Smith as rump National Liberty Party candidate for 1848, at a convention held on June 14 and 15 1848 in Buffalo. Smith went on to win 2,545 votes, less than 1% of the Free Soil vote total.

Salmon P. Chase of Ohio had joined the Liberty Party in 1841, and had a significant influence on the Liberty Party platform of 1844. Chase advocated the goal of withdrawing all direct federal government support and recognition of slavery as opposed to simply demanding the abolition of slavery everywhere in the United States. Chase was a strong supporter of the movement which resulted in the formation of the Free Soil Party.


The Liberty Party continued to exist, but many of its supporters left to join other parties. The 1848 platform strongly condemned attempts to moderate the party. The party began promoting moralistic policies, such as prohibitions on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The party favored free trade, and opposed tariffs.

In 1852, the party held its national convention on September 30, 1852, in Syracuse, N. Y. The presidential nominee that year was William Goodell of New York, and his running mate was S. M. Bell of Virginia. It received negligible support because most of its supporters voted for the Free Soil Party. (I don't know exactly how many votes the party received, but its votes were included among the 277 votes nationwide that were cast for "other" candidates.)

When the Free Soil Party merged with the Republican Party in 1854, many of the issues originally championed by the Liberty Party were now better represented by other parties. The party never fielded another candidate in a president election thereafter.

The Legacy of Slavery: The Free Soil Party and the Election of 1848

Before the compromise of 1850, a political movement opposing slavery had morphed into a political party, and in the election that preceded the compromise, that party had chosen a surprising candidate for president. Martin Van Buren was Andrew Jackson's hand-picked successor having served in the capacity of Secretary of State in his cabinet, and as his Vice-President during Jackson's second term. Van Buren was able to ride on Jackson's coattails to victory in the Presidential election of 1836, but his association with Old Hickory was both a blessing and a curse. Van Buren lost his bid for re-election in 1840, mainly due to a poor economy that many believe was the result of Jackson's decision not to recharter the Bank of the United States.

Free Soil Party.jpg

After the expiration of his term, a disappointed Van Buren returned to his estate of Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New York, where he continued to closely watch political developments, hoping to return to the White House in four years' time. He watched with interets the battle between Henry Clay and President John Tyler, who took office after the death of President William Henry Harrison in April of 1841. During this period of political exile, Van Buren made a number of moves calculated to maintain his support in the Democratic Party. He made a trip to the South and traveled to Nashville where he met with Jackson, as well as with former Speaker of the House James K. Polk. The three began thinking about a return to the White House for Van Buren, with Polk as a possible running mate. There were a number of other possible candidates, including Tyler, James Buchanan, Levi Woodbury, Lewis Cass and others. One of these was Jackson's first Vice-President, powerful South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun.

Van Buren kept his head down and remained silent on a number of major public issues, like that of tariffs. When President John Tyler made annexation of Texas his chief foreign policy objective, thinking that it might be the issue that got him re-elected, many Democrats, particularly in the South, were anxious for the annexation to succeed. When an explosion on the USS Princeton killed Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur in February 1844, Tyler selected Calhoun as Upshur's replacement. Like Tyler, Calhoun was also anxious for the annexation of Texas. Calhoun negotiated an annexation treaty between the United States and Texas.

Van Buren had hoped that he would not have to take a public stand on the issue, but there was no escaping the Texas question. It soon became the central issue in U.S. politics. Van Buren had to make his views on the issue public. Van Buren knew that his public acceptance of annexation would likely help him win the 1844 Democratic nomination, but he also thought that annexation would inevitably lead to an unjust war with Mexico. It seems that principle prevailed over politics and in a public letter published shortly after Henry Clay also announced his opposition to the annexation treaty, Van Buren made his views on the Texas question public, essentially agreeing with Clay's assessment.

Van Buren's opposition to immediate annexation cost him the support of many pro-slavery Democrats. He was still the leading contender for the nomination, but he needed two-thirds of the votes of delegates to win it. In the weeks before the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Van Buren's supporters were able to do the math, and they too realized that their candidate would win a majority of the delegates on the first presidential ballot, but would not be able to win the support of the required two-thirds of delegates. His supporters tried unsuccessfully to change the rules to one of a simple majority, but several Northern delegates joined with Southern delegates in implementing the two-thirds rule for the 1844 convention. Van Buren won 146 of the 266 votes on the first presidential ballot, with only 12 of his votes coming from Southern states. When the convention reconvened and held another ballot, James K. Polk, who shared many of Van Buren's views but favored immediate annexation, won 44 votes. On the ninth and final ballot of the convention, Van Buren's supporters withdrew the former president's name from consideration, and Polk won the Democratic presidential nomination.

One again disappointed by the outcome, Van Buren endorsed Polk in the interest of party unity. He also convinced Silas Wright to run for Governor of New York so that the popular Wright could help boost Polk in the state. Wright narrowly defeated Whig nominee Millard Fillmore in the 1844 gubernatorial election, and Wright's victory in the state helped Polk win it in the electoral college, permitting him to narrowly defeat Henry Clay in the 1844 presidential election.

After taking office, Polk offered Van Buren the ambassadorship to London. Van Buren declined. Although Polk also consulted Van Buren in the formation of his cabinet, the President offended Van Buren by failing to appoint a New Yorker to post of Secretary of State or Secretary of the Treasury. Other patronage decisions in New York also angered Van Buren and Wright.

At the time, the two main factions in the New York Democratic Party were the Barnburners (the anti-slavery faction) and the Hunkers (the faction more tolerant of slavery). Van Buren had tried to keep the peace between the two factions, but after Polk's election, Van Buren became aligned more closely with the Barnburners. The split in the state party worsened during the Polk's presidency, as his administration lavished patronage on the Hunkers.

In his retirement, Van Buren also grew more personally opposed to slavery. His change of heart was partially the result of the Mexican–American War, which he had predicted and tried to prevent. US victory in the war brought the debate over slavery in the territories to the forefront of American politics once again. Van Buren published an anti-slavery manifesto in which he rejected the notion that Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories, and argued the Founding Fathers had favored the eventual abolition of slavery. This document became known as the "Barnburner Manifesto". He was helped in its composition by John Van Buren and Samuel Tilden, both of whom were leaders of the Barnburner faction.

Following the publication of the Barnburner Manifesto, many Barnburners urged the former president to once again run for President in the 1848 presidential election. The 1848 Democratic National Convention seated competing Barnburner and Hunker delegations from New York, but the Barnburners walked out of the convention when Lewis Cass was nominated as the party's presidential candidate on the fourth ballot. Cass had called for congressional regulation of slavery in the territories.

The Barnburners began to organize as a third party. At a convention held in June 1848, in Utica, New York, they nominated Van Buren for president. He expressed some reluctance to leave the Democratic Party, but after considering the matter, Van Buren accepted the nomination. He saw his duty as being the need to add his considerable influence behind the power of the anti-slavery movement, hoping to help defeat Cass, and weaken the Hunker faction in New York. At a convention held in Buffalo, New York in August 1848, a group of anti-slavery Democrats, Whigs, and members of the abolitionist Liberty Party met in the first national convention of what became known as the Free Soil Party.

The convention unanimously nominated Van Buren, and chose Charles Francis Adams as Van Buren's running mate. In his public message accepting the nomination, Van Buren expressed his full support for the Wilmot Proviso (proposed legislation that would ban slavery in all territories acquired from Mexico in the Mexican–American War, named for its sponsor, Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania).

Some Free Soil leaders were optimistic that Van Buren could win a handful of Northern states. Their hope was that there would be no candidate with a majority of electoral votes, and this would then force a contingent election in the House of Representatives. The plan failed. Van Buren did not win a single electoral vote. Zachary Taylor was elected President, receiving 163 electoral votes to 127 for Cass. However Van Buren has some success. His nomination helped bring about Cass's defeat by causing the defection of many Democrats from Cass to Van Buren in the North. Van Buren also won over ten percent of the national popular vote and fifteen percent of the popular vote in the Northern states. He was the first third party candidate in U.S. history to win at least ten percent of the national popular vote. In concurrent congressional elections, former Ohio Democrat Salmon Chase won election to the Senate and about a dozen Free Soil candidates won election to the House of Representatives.


Van Buren never sought the presidency again. But he did keep interested in national politics and managed to outlive all four of his immediate successors: Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor. He died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862, at 79.

Remembering Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 (57 years ago today.) His presidency seems like an unfortunate valley in a life otherwise filled mostly with peaks. Histories of the era before Hoover's presidency describe him as a whiz kid, a man with the Midas touch, the energetic genius who could tackle and fix any problem. The post-presidential Hoover is remembered as a great humanitarian and an elder statesman. But the Hoover presidency is remembered, rightly or wrongly, for the Great Depression and for Hoover's laissez faire approach to the suffering which it caused his countrymen.


Herbert Clark Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa on August 10, 1874, the son of a Quaker blacksmith. His parents died during his childhood, leaving the future president orphaned at age 9. In 1885 he moved to Oregon where he was raised by his uncle John Minthorn, a physician. Hoover enrolled at Stanford University when it opened in 1891, and graduated as a mining engineer in 1895.

In 1899 Hoover married his Stanford sweetheart, the former Lou Henry, and the couple went to China, where he worked for a private corporation as China's leading engineer. In June 1900 the Boxer Rebellion left the Hoovers to be trapped in Tientsin. For almost a month the settlement was under heavy fire. While his wife worked in the hospitals, Hoover directed the building of barricades, and even risked his life to rescue Chinese children. Hoover served as a guide to US Marines who came to the rescue of the Americans there.

During the First World War, Hoover was asked to help in getting stranded American tourists home from Europe. His committee helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Acquiring a reputation as a "can do" man, Hoover was tasked with the difficult job of feeding Belgian refugees after Belgium was invaded by the German army. After the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration, where he succeeded in cutting consumption of food at home that was badly needed overseas. After the Armistice, Hoover organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia in 1921. When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover was quoted as responding "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"

Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Without ever holding elected office, Hoover was chosen as the Republican Presidential nominee in 1928. As his running mate, he chose Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, a man with three-quarter Native American ancestry. In that campaign, Hoover claimed "we in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." But unfortunately he would be proven wrong in this prediction. His election seemed to ensure prosperity, but less than a year after his election, the stock market crashed, and the nation spiraled downward into depression.

After the crash Hoover's plan was to keep the Federal budget balanced, but to cut taxes and expand public works spending. Contrary to the false perception that Hoover did nothing about the depression, he presented Congress with a program asking for creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to aid business, additional help for farmers facing mortgage foreclosures, banking reform, a loan to states for feeding the unemployed, expansion of public works, and drastic governmental economy. But he also maintained that caring for the suffering must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility.

Like many presidents, Hoover had opponents in Congress, and he felt that they were sabotaging his program for their own political gain. Democrats and the media painted Hoover as a callous and cruel President. He was made to be the scapegoat for the Depression, with his name becoming an adjective for all manner of symbols of the depression. Shanties for the homeless were called Hoover Huts and collections of them were called Hoovervilles. When first world war vets protested for early payment of their war bonuses, General Douglas MacArthur fired on the protesters. Hoover was also blamed for this. He was badly defeated in the 1932 Presidential Election.

In the 1930's Hoover became a powerful critic of the New Deal, warning against tendencies toward public dependence on the state. He had a bitter relationship with his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He refused to speak to FDR on the ride the two men took to FDR's inauguration. But he got along famously with the next President, Harry Truman. In 1947 President Truman appointed Hoover to a commission to reorganize the Executive Departments. Hoover once again was called on to aid the starving in Europe following the Second World War. On Hoover's initiative, a school meals program in the American and British occupation zones of Germany was begun on April 14, 1947. The program served 3,500,000 children aged 6 through 18. A total of 40,000 tons of American food was provided during the Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals).


In 1960, Hoover appeared at his final Republican National Convention. Joking to the delegates, he said, "Apparently, my last three good-byes didn't take." Although he lived to see the 1964 convention, ill health prevented him from attending. In 1962, Hoover had a malignant intestinal tumor removed. Ten months later he had severe gastrointestinal bleeding and seemed terminally ill and frail, but his mind was clear and he maintained a great deal of correspondence. Although the illness would get worse over time, he refused to be hospitalized.

Hoover died following massive internal bleeding at the age of 90 in his New York City suite at 11:35 a.m. on October 20, 1964, 31 years, seven months, and sixteen days after leaving office. At the time of his death, he had the longest retirement of any President. Former President Jimmy Carter surpassed the length of Hoover's retirement on September 7, 2012. At the time of Hoover's death he was the second longest-lived president after John Adams.


There has been a recent resurgence of interest in the life of Herbert Hoover. In 2009 PBS produced an excellent documentary about Hoover entitled Landslide: A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover. He is also featured prominently in David Pietrusza's 2015 book 1932:The Rise of Hitler and FDR, reviewed here. Hoover is also the subject of two other recent biographies. The first, entitled Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye, was reviewed here in this community. The second, by Glen Jeansonne, is entitled Herbert Hoover: A Life. It came out on October 4, 2016. In 2017 yet another Hoover biography was released, written by Kenneth Whyte, entitled Herbert Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.

Happy "Big Block of Cheese Day"

It's "Big Block of Cheese Day" today!

Fans of the television show The West Wing will know that today, October 20th, is "Big Block of Cheese Day", a fictional workday on which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry encouraged his staff to meet with fringe special interest groups that normally would not get attention from the White House. Big Block of Cheese Day first appears in an episode called "The Crackpots and These Women" and also is mentioned in the subsequent episode "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail."

The rationale for the day, as recounted by McGarry is that America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, had a two-ton block of cheese in the White House foyer from which everyone was welcome to eat.

History records that the first "big block of cheese" was actually presented to Thomas Jefferson. The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a gift to Jefferson from the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. It was presented to Jefferson on January 1, 1802 by John Leland. Leland said that he considered the cheese an act of "profound the popular ratification of his election." This incident is reported in the book Real Life at the White House by John Whitcomb.

In 1837, President Andrew Jackson's supporters commissioned a similar cheese for him. Jackson's "big block of cheese" weighed 1400 pounds. After two years of aging the cheese, Jackson held a public "cheese tasting". The event was heavily attended, and the cheese was consumed in two hours.


Besides inspiring this recurring theme for the West Wing, this event also inspired a couple of literary works including The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman, written in 2004 and published by the Grove Press. It tells the story about a small town cheesemaker convinced by her pastor to make a giant cheese for the President-elect. The cheese also became the subject of a children's picture book published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, called A Big Cheese for the White House by Candace Fleming.

For real fanatics, shirts and other gear commemorating Big Block of Cheese Day is available here from Cafe Press. I plan to wear my Big Block of Cheese Day polo today. And for West Wing fans who want another fix of Leo's Big Block of Cheese Day speech, here it is:


The Legacy of Slavery: Franklin Pierce

Though he was a New England yankee, slavery was the undoing of the Presidency of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President. Pierce grew up in New Hampshire and gained some notoriety as a General in the Mexican War. Though some accused him of having a yellow streak during the war (Ulysses Grant in his memoirs writes that this was not so), Pierce was able to defeat an even more famous general and Mexican War hero, Winfield Scott, in the election of 1852.

Before the war, Pierce had served as a Congressman and later as a US Senator from New Hampshire. At the Democratic National Convention of 1852, Pierce was not a serious candidate for the presidential nomination. The convention began on June 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, with four major contenders for the Presidential nomination, namely: Stephen A. Douglas, William L. Marcy, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass. Like the Whigs, the Compromise of 1850 had divided the party on the issue of slavery. When the balloting began, the four candidates deadlocked, with no candidate reaching even a simple majority, much less the required supermajority of two-thirds. On the thirty-fifth ballot, Pierce was put forth as a compromise candidate. His long career as a party activist made him popular among delegates. He had never fully explained his views on slavery, allowing all factions to view him as reasonable compromise. His service in the Mexican-American War would allow the party to portray him as a war hero. On June 5, delegates unanimously nominated Pierce on the 49th ballot.

There was little difference between the platforms of the two parties and voter turnout in the election to its lowest level since 1836. Pierce's affable personality and lack of strongly held positions helped him prevail over Scott, whose antislavery views hurt him in the South. Pierce's military service effectively neutralized Scott's reputation as a celebrated war hero. Irish Catholic support of the Democratic Party and disdain for the Whig Party also helped Pierce.

At first, it appeared that the Compromise of 1850 had calmed the waters when it came to the slavery issue, but that was short lived. At first, northern abolitionists became nervous about efforts to purchase Cuba and additional territory from Mexico. They saw this as an attempt to expand territory where slavery could exist. But the most trouble on the issue came as the result of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. It repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, originated from a campaign to promote a transcontinental railroad with a link from Chicago, Illinois, to California through Nebraska.


Pierce kept the support of the Southerners who had supported him by vigilantly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. The issue was front and center when a slave named Anthony Burns was seized in Boston in 1854 and returned to his owner. The incident inflamed northern abolitionists. To win Southern support for organizing Nebraska, Douglas added a provision to the legislation repealing the Missouri Compromise. The bill provided that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. Although his cabinet had made other proposals, Douglas and several southern Senators successfully persuaded Pierce to support Douglas' plan.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act triggered a series of events that became known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery "Border Ruffians", mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in a government that Pierce recognized. When legitimate citizens of Kansas elected a government called the Topeka Constitution, Pierce called it a shadow government and an "act of rebellion." Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate. He dispatched federal troops to break up a meeting of the government in Topeka.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked outrage among northerners who already viewed Pierce as being in the pocket of those with slave-holding interests. It provided the impetus for the formation of the Republican Party and contributed to Pierce's reputation as untrustworthy and easily manipulated. Having lost public confidence, Pierce failed to receive the nomination by his party for a second term. Animosity against Pierce became so fierce that he became the first President to hire of a full-time bodyguard.

After leaving office, Pierce travelled to Europe before returning home. His drinking increased. He was critical of Northern abolitionists for encouraging ugly feelings between the two sections. In 1860 many Democrats viewed Pierce as a solid compromise choice for the presidential nomination, uniting both Northern and Southern wings of the party, but Pierce refused to run. During the Civil War, Pierce was very critical of Abraham Lincoln for his order suspending habeas corpus. Pierce argued that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. His outspokenness on this issue won him admirers with the emerging Northern Peace Democrats. In 1864, friends again put his name in play for the Democratic nomination, but by a letter read out loud to the delegates, Pierce said he would not run.

In 1862 Secretary of State William Seward sent Pierce a letter accusing him of being a member of the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle, an organization that had Confederate sympathies. Pierce was outraged at the accusation and he demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. When that didn't happen, a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional Globe.

But Pierce's reputation was greatly damaged in the North following the Battle of Vicksburg. Union Soldiers serving under General Hugh Ewing's command captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Fleetwood Plantation, and Ewing seized some of Davis's personal correspondence. This included letters between Pierce and his old friend Davis. The letters revealed Pierce's deep friendship with Davis and Pierce's ambivalence about the goals of the war. As early as 1860, Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism." Another letter stated that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war," and that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property."

On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside Pierce's home in Concord. The crowd in Concord wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, the visual proof of grief being used that day by millions of people across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and recalled his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he needed to display no flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and even cheered and applauded the former president as he went back into his home.

Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire, at 4:49 am on October 8, 1869, at 64 years old. The cause of death was probably cirrhosis of the liver and it was probably the result of Pierce's alcoholism. President Ulysses S. Grant declared a day of national mourning. Newspapers across the country carried lengthy front-page stories examining Pierce's colorful and controversial career.

Potus Geeks Book Review: The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton

Stephanie Kelton is a professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University in New York. She previously served as the Chief Economist for the US Senate Budget Committee and has served as an advisor to Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. She is also one of the leading proponents of MMT (modern monetary theory), described as a heterodox (antonym for orthodox) macroeconomic theory that views currency created by a sovereign federal government as a public monopoly. In her 2020 best seller The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy, Professor Kelton espouses a number of theories that run against the grain of popular economic theory.

Foremost of these is the notion that deficits don't matter, because any government that has the power to create its own currency will never run out of money. Professor Kelton is critical of popular thinking among both government leaders and mainstream economists that a government budget is like a household budget and that excessive spending and borrowing will lead to bankruptcy. The flaw in this thinking, according to Kelton and other MMT economists, is that unlike households, private business or even state governments, a federal government in control of the creation of its currency can never run out of money. On the contrary, it is the creator of money, and can always create more with a simple entry on the keyboard of a computer that keeps an electronic ledger with the Federal Reserve. Also contrary to popular thinking, Kelton and other MMT economists believe that it isn't deficits that are harmful to the economy, it is balanced or surplus budgets because these take money out of the private sector, limiting opportunity for economic growth. Government deficits inject that money into the economy, increasing the money supply and along with it, the opportunity for use of that money to stimulate and grow the economy.

Professor Kelton never uses the phrase "turn the crank" (which implies the printing of money), though this is essentially what she is advocating. But while this strategy has failed in other countries, such as Venezuela, Greece and pre-war Germany, this author distinguishes what happened in those countries. Weimar Germany operated on a gold standard, a constraint which no longer exists. Greece and Venezuela did not have control of their own currency. In the case of Greece, the nation had given up control of its currency creation to the EU, while Venezuela was also subject to currency controls. MMT economists see money a "creature of law" rather than a commodity.

This is not to suggest however that politicians should "go nuts" and spend, spend, spend. Kelton sees the real evil as inflation and is aware of the potential for over-inflated deficits to place the economy off kilter by spending to the point of creating intolerable inflationary conditions. She sees the answer to this dilemma as injecting just enough money into the economy to create full employment. She also has an interesting idea of addressing periods of high unemployment by creating a right to a job for all who want to work. Under her plan, deficit spending would be used to create employment for those who are unemployed and want to find a job at what she calls a living wage ($15 USD per hour), offering employment in projects operated by local management, geared toward enterprises that would benefit the social good. These include building infrastructure, care for the poor and elderly, or environmentally friendly projects.

Professor Kelton is convinced that deficits don't matter when the deficit is created by a currency monopolist such as a federal government with an independent currency (e.g. the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, China, India and other nations with their own currency.) She considers government red ink to be the public's black ink, and also sees trade deficits as good for the country as well as for developing nations because they provide the nation with real goods in return for an accounting entry. She is also convinced that there will always be enough money to fund entitlement programs, once again because the government has the power to create the money needed to keep these programs afloat.

As the author points out in her penultimate chapter, there are a number of deficits that are more concerning than a federal government's budget deficit. These include the deficit in good jobs, the savings deficit, the health care deficit, the education deficit, the infrastructure deficit, the climate deficit, and a deficit in democracy itself. Professor Kelton sees MMT as a means of addressing these problems with spending to address those that can be directly addressed, and by narrowing the income disparity gap through the means of injecting money into the economy, directed to those most in need.

In much of the book, the author takes her conclusions as self-evident or logical, without making a convincing argument or without demonstrating the clarity that she seems to see in them. Many economists from more orthodox schools of thought fault her logic as well as her analysis of inflation. It is difficult to understand how the level of deficit spending proposed by the author would not lead to inflation, as has occurred in other nations where mass injection of currency has led to its devaluation. The author also spends little time addressing the relationship between debt and deficits, and their proportion to a nation's gross domestic product (GDP), something very concerning as government spending continues to increase. The Congressional Budget Office that Professor Kelton once worked with continues to warn against the dangers of high deficits, especially as the federal debt of the United States begins to exceed 100% of GDP.

In spite of this, MMT is gaining in popularity and has been used as an argument in favor of recent mass increases in government spending by governments in their attempt to speed up recovery from the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rising political stars such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the progressive movement have thrown their support behind this way of economic thinking, and it may be that in the not too distant future, MMT will transition from its theoretical realm on the chalkboard into actual government budgets, and people will learn first hand whether it will prove to be an economic savior or the accelerant of the economic downfall of those nations that espouse it.

The Legacy of Slavery: The Compromise of 1850

Seventy-four years after the nation had declared independence, the nation still had yet to develop a conscience strong enough to realize the immorality of slavery. Those wanting to abolish it were considered by many as rabble rousers. In 1850 the nation passed up another opportunity to right this wrong, and instead it continued to view the enabling of slavery as the centerpiece of a so-called "compromise."

In 1848, the Whig Party convinced popular General Zachary Taylor to run as their candidate, even though Taylor had never run for office before. No one was even sure what party he belonged to or if he had ever even voted before. Taylor ultimately decided that he supported the Whig Party and agreed to run as their candidate. He won the election as President in November of 1848, as tensions were mounting between slave-holding states and free states. More territory had been acquired during the Mexican War and strong disagreement existed over whether some, all or none of the new territory would allow slavery.

Many in the Whig Party expected that the politically naïve Taylor would do as he was told and simply follow the party line on the question of what would become of the new territory. As a southerner who owned slaves himself, southerners expected that they had an ally in the White House. During his brief tenure as president, Taylor surprised many, and established himself as a strong supporter of the union. He refused to take his marching orders from the Whigs in Congress. Debate over the slave status of the large territories claimed in the Mexican War led to threats of secession from Southerners, but despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. He wanted settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood. Debate over the issue led to the Compromise of 1850, something that Taylor did not support. But before the issue could be decided, Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in Congress in September of 1850, intended to broker a peace in the confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North concerning the status of the newly acquired territories. The compromise was drafted by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. It was negotiated between Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas, and for a time it prevented secession or civil war and reduced sectional conflict. On September 9, 1850, the Compromise of 1850 transferred a third of Texas's claimed territory (now parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) to the control of the United States government in return for the federal government assuming $10 million of Texas's pre-annexation debt.

Under the compromise, Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico, as well as its claims north of the Missouri Compromise Line. It transferred its public debt to the federal government, and retained the control over El Paso. California's application for admission as a free state with its current boundaries was approved and a Southern proposal to split California at parallel 35° north to provide a Southern territory was abandoned.

The New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory could in principle decide in the future to become slave states by popular vote, even though Utah and a northern fringe of New Mexico were north of the Missouri Compromise Line where slavery had previously been banned. These lands were generally unsuitable for plantation agriculture and their existing settlers were non-Southerners uninterested in slavery. The unsettled southern parts of New Mexico Territory, where Southern hopes for expansion had been centered, remained a part of New Mexico instead of becoming a separate territory.

The most significant Southern gains were (1) a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, the enforcement of which offended Northern public opinion, and (2) preservation of slavery in Washington, DC, although the slave trade was banned there.

The Compromise became possible after the sudden death of Zachary Taylor. Although Taylor was a slave owner, he favored excluding slavery from the Southwest. Whig leader Henry Clay designed a compromise, which failed to pass in early 1850, due to the opposition of both pro-slavery southern Democrats, led by John C. Calhoun, and anti-slavery northern Whigs. Calhoun's supporters thought that the compromise didn't offer enough to the slave states, while the northern Whigs thought it gave too much. At Clay's suggestion, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas divided Clay's bill into several smaller pieces and he was able to narrowly win their passage over the opposition of those with stronger views on both sides.

The debate in Congress became quite heated at times. On April 17, a "Committee of Thirteen" had agreed on the border of Texas as part of Henry Clay's plan. The dimensions were later changed. That same day, during debates in the Senate, Vice President Fillmore and Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had a heated exchange. During the heated debates, Compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drew a pistol on Benton.

In early June, nine slaveholding Southern states sent delegates to a gathering in Nashville known as the Nashville Convention. Their goal was to determine their course of action if the compromise passed. Some delegates preached secession, but the moderates prevailed and proposed a series of compromises, including extending the dividing line designated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.

After Zachary Taylor's death on July 9, 1850, Vice-President Millard Fillmore became president. Despite being a Northerner from New York, Fillmore had very different views on the slavery issue from Taylor. Before Taylor's death, Fillmore told Taylor that, as President of the Senate, he would use his tie-breaking vote to support the Compromise of 1850. When Fillmore took office, the entire cabinet offered their resignations. Fillmore accepted them all and appointed men who supported the compromise, (except for Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin). When the compromise finally came before both Houses of Congress, Fillmore urged Congress to pass the original bill. This provoked an enormous battle in congress.

President Fillmore had support Clay's proposal and the various bills were initially combined into one "omnibus" bill. Despite Clay's efforts, it failed in a crucial vote on July 31, opposed by southern Democrats and by northern Whigs. Clay announced on the Senate floor the next day that he intended to pass each individual part of the bill. But the 73-year-old Clay was physically exhausted and was suffering from the effects of tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him. Clay left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas took the lead in attempting to pass Clay's proposals through the Senate.

Fillmore was anxious to find a quick solution to the conflict in Texas over the border with New Mexico, which threatened to become an armed conflict between Texas militia and the federal soldiers. Fillmore denied Texas's claims to New Mexico. He took the position that the United States had promised to protect the territorial integrity of New Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Fillmore's resolve on this issue helped convince Texas's U.S. Senators, Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk, to support Stephen Douglas's compromise. With their support, a Senate bill providing for a final settlement of Texas's borders won passage days after Fillmore delivered his message. Under the terms of the bill, the U.S. would assume Texas's debts, while Texas's northern border was set at the 36° 30' parallel north (the Missouri Compromise line) and much of its western border followed the 103rd meridian. The bill attracted the support of a bipartisan coalition of Whigs and Democrats from both sections, although most opposition to the bill came from the South.

The Senate quickly moved onto the other major issues, passing bills that provided for the admission of California, the organization of New Mexico Territory, and the establishment of a new fugitive slave law. The debate moved to the House of Representatives, where Fillmore, Senator Daniel Webster, Douglas, Congressman Linn Boyd, and Speaker of the House Howell Cobb took the lead in convincing members to support the compromise bills that had been passed in the Senate. The Senate's proposed settlement of the Texas-New Mexico boundary faced intense opposition from many Southerners. Some Northerners also opposed the measure because they believed that the Texas did not deserve monetary compensation. After a series of close procedural votes that tried to delay consideration of the issue, the House voted to approve a Texas bill similar to that which had been passed by the Senate. After that vote, the House and the Senate quickly agreed on each of the major issues, including the banning of the slave trade in Washington. The president quickly signed each bill into law exce[t for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He ultimately signed that law as well after Attorney General Crittenden assured him that the law was constitutional. Many in Texas wanted to send a military expedition into New Mexico, but in November 1850 the state legislature voted to accept the compromise.

Fillmore's message to Congress in which he recommended that Texas be paid to abandon its claims to part of New Mexico, aided in gathering support for the compromise among northern congressmen. So did his mobilization of 750 Federal troops to New Mexico. These measures helped to shift a critical number of northern Whigs in Congress away from their insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso (the stipulation that all land gained by the Mexican War must be closed to slavery, proposed by Congressman David Wilmot).

Douglas's effective strategy in Congress combined with Fillmore's message to Congress gave momentum to the Compromise movement. Breaking up Clay's single legislative package, Douglas presented five separate bills to the Senate which individually would:

1. Admit California as a free state.
2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate the state for lost lands.
3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
4. Place federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking escapees—the Fugitive Slave Act.
5. Abolish the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia.

Each measure obtained a majority, and, by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Fillmore had won the battle, but ended up losing the war. His actions split the Whigs irreparably, as Whigs on both sides were upset by the compromise, which led to a party division that was never healed. Northern Whigs said "God Save us from Whig Vice Presidents." The President lost his bid to be nominated as the party's candidate in the 1852 election. Millard Fillmore was the last Whig President of the United States and by 1856 the party was a shadow of its former self, with many former anti-slavery Whigs joining the newly formed Republican Party.

The Legacy of Slavery: Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor was the last President to own slaves while in office. A southerner, he was expected by those in slaveholding states to be supportive of the "peculiar institution" and of its spread into the territories acquired in the war with Mexico. But as President, he angered many Southernors by taking a moderate position on slavery.

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Taylor was born on on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, to a prominent family of planters. During his youth, he lived on the frontier in Louisville, Kentucky, residing in a small cabin in a wood during most of his childhood, before moving to a brick house as a result of his family's increased prosperity. He shared the house with seven brothers and sisters, and his father owned 10,000 acres of land that was tended to by twenty-six enslaved persons by 1800.

Taylor gained prominence as a soldier, first in the war of 1812, and later in the Mexican War. He had no political allegiances and considered himself as an independent, though in actuality he was someone who had never even voted prior to his own election. But as the 1848 Whig Party convention approached, Taylor said that he had always been a Whig in principle, although he considered himself a Jeffersonian-Democrat. Many southerners believed that Taylor supported slavery, and its expansion into the new territory absorbed from Mexico, and some were angered when Taylor suggested that if he were elected President he would not veto the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed against such an expansion. This position did not enhance his support from activist antislavery elements in the Northern United States, as these wanted Taylor to speak out strongly in support of the Proviso, not simply fail to veto it. Most abolitionists did not support Taylor, since he was a slave-owner.

Taylor received the Whig nomination for President in 1848. Millard Fillmore of New York was chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. Taylor's homespun manner and his status as a war hero were seen by the Whigs as huge political assets. Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate. He was the last Southerner to be elected president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

At the time Taylor became President, the issue of slavery in the western territories of the United States was the number one political issue of the day. Debate between extreme pro and antislavery viewpoints had become very bitter. In 1849, Taylor told the residents of California, including the Mormons around Salt Lake, and the residents of New Mexico to create state constitutions and apply for statehood in December when Congress met. He correctly predicted that these constitutions would come out against slavery in California and New Mexico. In December 1849, and January 1850, Taylor told Congress that it should allow them to become states, once their constitutions arrived in Washington D.C. He opposed attempts to develop territorial governments for the two future states, because he worried that this might increase tension between pro and antislavery activists regarding a congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories (the very thing that would occur in Kansas years later.)

The slavery issue dominated Taylor's short term. Although he owned slaves on his plantation in Louisiana, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery, angering fellow Southerners. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. He said that if anyone was "taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang" with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico." He never wavered from this position. Henry Clay then proposed a complex Compromise of 1850. Taylor died as it was being debated.

When Taylor died on July 9, 1850, reportedly of cholera, many believed that Taylor had actually been poisoned by those angered by his moderate position on slavery. Over 140 years after his death, on June 17, 1991, Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner, where radiological studies were conducted and samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues were removed. Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed arsenic levels several hundred times lower than they would have been if Taylor had been poisoned, and the coroner ruled out poisoning as a likely cause of death.


Despite these findings, assassination theories continue in some quarters. Author Michael Parenti devoted a chapter in his 1999 book History as Mystery to "The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor." Parenti argues that Taylor was assassinated because of his moderate stance on the expansion of slavery. As for the 1991 autopsy, according to Parenti, that was botched.

The Legacy of Slavery: James K. Polk

A 2007 book by William Dusinberre called Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk describes both Polk's Presidency and the day to day live of the enslaved persons who labored for him on his Tennessee estate. Polk was the oldest of ten children born in a farmhouse in what is now Pineville, North Carolina in Mecklenburg County on November 2, 1795, just outside Charlotte. His father, Samuel Polk, was a slaveholder, successful farmer and surveyor of Scots-Irish descent. Polk grew up in an environment where slavery was a normal accepted practice and there is no suggestion that he ever saw it as an evil.

Polk served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1835 to 1839. The two major issues during Polk's term as speaker were slavery and the economy. During his term, Polk issued the gag rule on petitions from abolitionists, one which was often challenged and tested by Massachusetts Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams.

Slavery was a major issue in the election of 1844, more specifically, US expansion and whether or not new territory would allow slavery. The leading contender for the presidential nomination was former President Martin Van Buren, who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. The main point of political contention involved the Republic of Texas, which, after declaring independence from Mexico in 1836, had asked to join the United States. Van Buren opposed the annexation but in doing so lost the support of many Democrats, including former President Andrew Jackson. At the Democratic nominating convention that year, Van Buren won a simple majority on the convention's first ballot but did not attain the two-thirds majority needed for the nomination. When it became clear after another six ballots that Van Buren would not win the required majority, Polk emerged as a "dark horse" candidate and an indecisive eighth ballot, the convention unanimously nominated Polk.

During his presidency, many abolitionists criticized Polk as an instrument of slave owners, and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported annexing Texas and later war with Mexico. Polk wrote in his diary that he believed slavery could not exist in the territories won from Mexico, but refused to endorse the Wilmot Proviso that would forbid it there. Polk argued instead for extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, which would prohibit the expansion of slavery above 36° 30' west of Missouri, but allow it below that line if approved by eligible voters in the territory. In Slavemaster President, William Dusinberre argues that Polk's diary, which he kept during his presidency, was written for later publication, and does not represent Polk's policy at the time.

Polk was a slaveholder for his entire life. His father had left Polk more than 8,000 acres of land, and divided about 53 slaves to his widow and children after he died. James inherited twenty of his father's slaves, either directly or from deceased brothers. In 1831, he became an absentee cotton planter, sending slaves to clear plantation land that his father had left him near Somerville, Tennessee. Four years later Polk sold his Somerville plantation and, together with his brother-in-law, bought 920 acres of land, a cotton plantation near Coffeeville, Mississippi. He ran this plantation for the rest of his life, eventually taking it over completely from his brother-in-law.

Polk rarely sold slaves, although once he became President and could better afford it, he bought more. Polk's will stipulated that their slaves were to be freed after his wife Sarah had died. However, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution freed all remaining slaves in rebel states long before the death of his wife in 1891.


William Dusinberre argues that, unlike many antebellum planters who portrayed their involvement with slavery as a historical burden thrust upon them by their ancestors, Polk entered the slave business of his own volition, for reasons principally of financial self-interest. Critics have described Dusinberre's book as "the most careful and vivid account to date of how slavery functioned on a single cotton plantation." One summary of the book states:

" Life at the Polk estate was brutal and often short. Fewer than one in two slave children lived to the age of fifteen, a child mortality rate even higher than that on the average plantation. A steady stream of slaves temporarily fled the plantation throughout Polk's tenure as absentee slavemaster. Yet Polk was in some respects an enlightened owner, instituting an unusual incentive plan for his slaves and granting extensive privileges to his most favored slave. Startlingly, Dusinberre shows how Polk sought to hide from public knowledge the fact that, while he was president, he was secretly buying as many slaves as his plantation revenues permitted...Dusinberre suggests that the president's political stance toward slavery-- influenced as it was by his deep personal involvement in the plantation system-- may actually have helped precipitate the Civil War that Polk sought to avoid."