Monday, February 11, 2019

ecce homines, pars V

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1850-1861.

Unlike their immediate predecessors, these presidents were not so much obscure as they were bad presidents. The challenge in covering them, then, is to explain why they were bad, and also how they got to be president, especially as the first two had already been fairly obscure in their own lifetimes. Again unlike their immediate predecessors, who were all Southern slaveholders, these three were all of a political species known at the time as doughfaces, a term the authors apply to each of them. This term indicated the malleability of "Northern men with Southern principles," that is, men from free states who were sympathetic with the demands of the slaveholders, anxious to propitiate them, and hostile to Northern anti-slavery forces, particularly the (deliberately obnoxious) abolitionists but also the rising Republican Party (opposed to the growth of slave territory but not immediately abolitionist).

Paul Finkelman on Millard Fillmore is a legal historian who can spend several pages at a time explaining some legal or political issue of the day without mentioning Fillmore at all. (He's usually clear, but not on the Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute, which I thought I understood until now.) The problem is that Finkelman doesn't consider Fillmore very interesting. He judges Fillmore completely devoid of practical political savvy, despite his years in Congress and in the fulcrum of New York State politics. This experience is deemed of no importance, so the entire pre-presidential first half of the book feels rather pointless. Once president, Fillmore is mostly distinguished for his vehement prosecution of violations of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which Finkelman contrasts with Fillmore's lack of concern over the many freebooters caught trying to invade Cuba because they thought it would make a nifty additional slave state. Occasionally Fillmore does something of which Finkelman approves, like sending Perry to Japan, but though this series has previously shown you don't have to write a nugatory book about a nugatory president, this one is.

Michael F. Holt on Franklin Pierce judges Pierce's weakness to be his concern to hold the Democratic Party together, which did more to destroy it. Mostly Pierce did this by anxiously over-propitiating Southern views. As a state party boss, he would work to expel even nominated candidates who spoke a word against the Fugitive Slave Act, not that this loyalty prevented the South from being suspicious of him. As president, he ordered the American equivalent of a three-line whip in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on the grounds that western expansion would appeal to Democrats and unite them against Whigs who were opposed. But that didn't work because the issue of whether the new territories would be slave or free broke support along regional lines. Weirdly, as president Pierce had also tried to foster party unity by the opposite tack of spreading patronage among all factions, which only got everyone mad at him when they saw plum jobs going to their rivals. Holt is historian of the Whig Party, and even criticizes Pierce for not being a Whig. It's a pretty coherent book, though.

Jean H. Baker on James Buchanan is the best book of the three. Buchanan's reputation is as a weak, vacillating president, but Baker, also an academic historian, says no. He did go tharn in his last disastrous months as president, but Baker depicts Buchanan as an experienced and well-seasoned leader with a far more expansive view of presidential power than would become common until WW2. He had no hesitation, for instance, in sending troops to confront the insubordinate Mormon territorial government in Utah, and negotiating a settlement without military action. (There's also a brief reference to the Pig War, albeit not using that name, which was also settled without bloodshed, except to the pig.) But when the South began to rebel, Buchanan suddenly claimed he had no power to intervene, despite plenty of precedent from his adored Jackson among others. Baker intimates the reason is simply that Buchanan was too sympathetic to their cause. He seems to have considered himself a Southern gentleman who just happened to have born a few miles on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. But if Buchanan wasn't weak, he came close to being a traitor, and that judgment was a little hard for a healing post-Civil War nation to take. So weak is how he went down in history.

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