The Contenders Part I: The Generals

*Every first Tuesday every other month, the President’s Project will preview a different Presidential background in anticipation of the 2016 Presidential Election. Backgrounds do not overlap though surely these distinguished men’s did. It is with great care that a determination is made on what exactly the President was known for at the time of his election.*

Generals in the White House:

Overview: From the beginning Americans have sung the twin praises of democracy and civilian rule. They beat the drum for the common man and looked stateside for their heroes. Well, that did not stop the voting public from looking to military brass for their chief magistrate.

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1. George Washington (1789-1797): Elected twice unanimously by the American electorate, the first direction the nation looked for leadership was General George Washington. Fresh off of the thrilling victories of the Revolutionary War, Washington swept his incredible popularity into the President’s chair. His role as a general was present from the start. He had a small circle of advisers, but also showed incredible independence and leadership as the first President. His sense of clarity and purpose closely paralleled his military career of old. In fact, his electoral triumph was even unprecedented. It was his only national election. Though many of Washington’s presidential actions were considered sacred precedents, it would take another great war with Great Britain for a general to again lead the nation.

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7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837):  If Andrew Jackson were submitting resumes to the Oval Office today, “General” would not be most recent experience. This of course is does not tell how Jackson became an endearing ideal. The Junior Senator of Tennessee from 1823-1825 would never be mistaken for General Andrew Jackson. From his advisor-heavy “Kitchen Cabinet” in the White House, to his ruthless fights to oblivion with enemies, Jackson never show presidential power as anything other than war. He believed in his cause with soldierly determination and imposed his will onto an entire era. This was true whether his foe was real in the case of Great Britain or imagined, (he once said of the US Bank, “The Bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill It!)” It is clear that no early President was more instrumental in establishing a vision of a strong executive. For him, politicians were yet another army to impose his will and his vision.

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9. William Henry Harrison (1841): Though a full generation passed between Washington and Jackson, America waited only four years before turning again to military greatness. From the economic malaise of the “Martin Van Ruin” administration, William Henry Harrison’s mostly light 1840 campaign was a boon. Most famous pre-presidency for being “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer” on the western frontier, General Harrison was second only to Jackson in the early 19th century glamorization of American military. Like Jackson, Harrison used military retirement to at least nominally engage in politics, serving barely a year as the Minister to Columbia for John Quincy Adams from 1828 to 1829. History never saw if Harrison would continue his two General predecessor’s as strong leaders. The ninth president died April 4th, 1841, barely a month after taking office.

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12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): The death of one general set into motion a chain of events that led to another just eight years later. Following a disastrous John Tyler presidency and President Polk’s bloody Mexican-American war, the nation looked ironically to a General to return peace to the nation. It was in that bloody Mexican-American war, that General Zachary Taylor rose to palpable popularity. With sweeping triumph America was again victorious with new heroic generals splashed across the nation’s headlines. Unlike Jackson and Harrison, General Taylor cashed in immediately, running just months after the war concluded. His victory was a decisive one, becoming the first Whig to win a national election since Harrison. “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor proved to not be as forcible as expected. Following the creed of his legislature-as-the-power Whig party, Taylor relished in a diminutive chief executive following the whims of Congress. In true Whig fashion, few of the nation’s memories of the Taylor adminstration are of his executive prowess. What remained was far from the image of heroic generals of yesteryear. He holds the dubious honor of being the last slave-holding President and he would die July 9th 1850 just 16 months after taking office. He never got around to flexing Presidential muscle.

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18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Joining the army at age 21, Sam Grant was a military man until his election to the White House in 1868. Like his predecessors, it took a dynamic war to bring him to political stardom. Elected after his sensational triumph as the head of the Union Army in the failed Southern Independence Movement of 1861-1865, General Grant essentially could have picked his profession due to his overwhelming popularity. Settling on being the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1868, President Grant joined the long line of American battlefield victory capped by civilian rule. History has not been kind to Grant who was an aging General by the time he left office. Far from projecting a willful and ethical Cabinet to the masses , Grant’s eight years in office were littered with corruption and scandal. Though Grant has largely remained outside of suspicion in these scandal-ridden times, his Presidency is known more for his failure than its accomplishments. Though his stock is rising due mostly to a  progressive and forward thinking view on Civil Rights and Indian Peace, Grant’s troops were indicative of widespread chaos during his time in office. The same man who marshaled forces during the nation’s most perilous time could not translate it into a presidency.

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34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): The Civil War gave Americans many civilian elected representatives. This followed a long line of generals from the Revolution to the War of 1812 to the Mexican American War. However, once General Grant exited the stage, Americans declined the Spanish-American War and WWI generals for the highest office in the land. It wouldn’t be until World War II before finally looked again to a general to lead the nation. By the time of General Eisenhower’s election in 1952 ,it had been 80 years since a general was elected president. To put that in perspective, we are still 20+ years from equaling that drought. It was quite the drought buster. Ike the General led America to worldwide triumph as Supreme Allied Commander during the war and as a force of will after it. By his inauguration in 1953, the America Eisenhower inherited was much different than his military predecessors that rose to his level. As a battle tested world power, the winner of mid-20th Century peace now guided 1950s America through the end of the Korean War and the ever-terrifying Cold War. He created a forceful foreign policy and oversaw an arms race. His military mind even went to work stateside. Anyone driving on one of the 20 interstate highways may have noticed. The Eisenhower Highway System was a direct result of his military career. While driving the Autobahn after the war, Eisenhower brought the idea home. Finally, it was the Russian launch of Sputnik that immediately was seen by Ike as a military aim and not just one of science. America has not looked to a general since.

Could it happen in 2016?: However, when Eisenhower left office, his popularity and strength ended up being the end and not the beginning of an era. Barring an unforseen challenger from either party, 2016 will mark 60 years since America has looked to military brass as President. In fact, George H. W. Bush is the last military veteran to be elected, a drought that will reach 28 years by 2016. So what man or woman is showing signs of breaking the drought? Well, none. So far, no military General has thrown his or her hat in the ring which makes it highly unlikely that ’16 will see a return of military might in the White House.

Recent polls have shown that military is not exactly a bulletproof background in ’16. There are 18 candidates in the latest Iowa straw poll. Only Democrat Jim Webb (2.5% of latest polls) and Republican Rick Perry (4.8% of latest polls) have seen any military action and nowhere near the rank of general. Both left the military as Captains with Webb discharged by the Marines in 1972 and Perry discharged by the Air Force in 1977.

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William Henry Harrison (1841)

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Book: Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy

Author: Robert M. Owens

1. Date- It is a book hailed as “the first scholarly biography of Harrison in more than sixty years.” True to the inside jacket this 2007 work comes closer than ever to a scholarly work to cover Harrison’s life. Coming nearly 68 years after the 1939 classic from Freeman Cleaves, the date is crucial to the understanding of Owens’s work. Here is a President who best represents dark pasts Americans want to forget. Harrison was a slave-owning man of the frontier whose greatest accomplishments include the removal of Indians. The sheer presence of this work is a treasure for those trying to complete the suite of Presidential biographies. 1939 is an awful long time ago and for that to produce the modern standard it can be disheartening. Harrison will never be on the dollar bill. He was inconsequential to the office, but a President is a President. Just like Cleaves, Harrison is painted as a man stuck in his era with a plea for mercy as we look back with our modern eyes.

Grade: A

2. Scope- Owens never claims to write the cradle to grave narrative of Harrison as Cleaves sought to do in 1939. Instead, the author chooses a much more restricted scope. The beginnings and endings of Harrison are of little notice as a vast majority is focused on his tenure as frontier governor through the end of the War of 1812. This 20+ year span is crucial to the overall theme of Owens book as he establishes the rise in Jeffersonian America. This includes an Indian policy in need of a faithful servant to execute it. To reign in the scope here is extremely interesting for the narrative, as the work stays focused and concise. Owens takes advantage of multiple and frequent opportunities to reference the personal well being of Harrison and goes to great lengths to explain Harrison the person. He also does this by exploring the America in which Harrison lived. Then, it ends. Much like the 30 day Presidency itself, this work on Harrison seems to end almost too abruptly. In a dozen pages, America wins the War of 1812 and a generation passes with a dead President Harrison in 1841. The scope never meant to cover his presidency, but to mention it and then toss it away did distract from the overall work. Furthermore, though the new angle is interesting, almost seventy years without a full study demanded more. This scope did not deliver.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Robert M. Owens is currently an Associate Professor at Wichita State University. After receiving his doctorate from University of Illinois in 2003, Dr. Owens continued to write and teach. His 2007 work is the largest scale work he has undertaken though he is the author of many published works. Another interesting perspective is that Owens will move on from here to study Southern Indians in America’s Early Republic era. From an academic perspective this work does feel to have a distinct flow of an extended thesis paper. The reader should expect from this author a thorough study with multiple sources covering primary, archives, periodicals, secondary sources and others. With his background in Colonial and early US and his obvious interest in the American Indians in general, the formation of American Indian policy seems to find a solid match in authorship. 

Grade: A-

4. Length- Clocking in around 250 pages, the narrow scope and clear vision is perfectly articulated by Owens. Never setting out to make the definitive tome on Harrison, Owens instead creates a quicker read focused on great background and general information to complement a thorough look at Harrison’s middle years. If the study of Harrison’s life is even thoughout, this work could easily become a 600-700 page authortative work. Conversely, the 250 pages here leaves the reader feeling a short biography is in the works. True to design, there are no moments of lag as the minute details are sacrificed in favor of moving along the narrative. This does come at a cost at times. One particular moment was Tippacanoe. Truthfully, there is a bit too much in the Cleaves work as the 1939 narrative clogs along at a slow pace. However, William Henry Harrison is remembered mostly for a single shining moment of military glory at Old Tip. Even in short biography, there are particular moments that demand a long look. This is but one example of what can be missed when going for too short of a biography. 

Grade: B-

5. Mission- By calling this the first “scholarly” biography in over 60 years, Owens clearly made this his mission. A quick look at Amazon will uncover many works on Harrison. They are usually quick notes on the man or dumbed down factoids that rarely raise above placemat status. For Owens, this work always meant to stay above the general audience and reach an academic reader really trying to get into the weeds of early 19th century America. True, the Jefferson presidency and the War of 1812 are not new subjects in American research. However, Owens shifts the focus from the White House to another decision maker on the frontier. For nearly twenty years, Harrison, son of Virginia, stood his ground on the frontier and greatly changed the American Midwest. It was not glamorous, it was not pretty. It simply happened. As a true academic, Owens makes it very clear that he felt it was his duty to shed light on all of history whether we would like to remember it or not. So no, this is not the first mention of Harrison since Cleaves in 1939. This is, in fact, the highest brow since then. It is not a perfect work and it left many elements to be desired. Nevertheless, for an academic, Owens gets very close with his stellar research and uncanny ability to justify all of his propositions with some form of solid source. As of 1815, Harrison was covered to the best of his ability. Now if we could just get him to finish the story…

Grade: A-

 

William Henry Harrison (1841)

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Book: Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time

Author: Freeman Cleaves

1. Date- Written during the Great Depression and between two World Wars, Cleaves’ 1939 work on Harrison is a big fish in a small pond. The work appeared 98 years after the untimely death of the ninth President and this work almost stands alone as a full scale biography. Few works before or since covered the entire life of Harrison, with most focusing on his long military career rather than his brief Presidency. This work is decently readable for modern readers, but the age certainly shows. His matter-of-fact style translates little narrative flourish as battling on the frontier or arguing with creditors receive equal excitement if excitement is a word you would use. It seems the impetus of the work is to shed little on this forgotten President who did little to incite previous academic study. Modern readers should be prepared to leap back in time. Slaves are humble servants and Indians are bloodthirsty savages. Though dated, this work sadly is the most modern look at Old Tip. For a man so critical and essential to the frontier struggles with the Native American culture, the blanket destruction of savages leads little to the story of Harrison’s gargantuan influence in the West. All things considered, this isn’t Cleaves’ fault. The work very much represents American pre-WWII and in the midst of a Depression.

Grade: B-

2. Scope- Opening with a detailed family tree in the foreword, Cleaves constantly strives to cover the entire life of Harrison and show this dynamic importance in American history. Cleaves wastes no time covering Harrison’s family’s storied past in the Revolution that preceded him and thrust into a compete narrative of his own life. For the Project, there are frequent urges to disparage a work set up like this volume. However, the incredibly brief 30 day Presidency seems to get its due proportional representation in Cleaves book. There are detailed and complete sections covering the storied military career that drew contemporary comparisons to Washington. Even his brief 19 month foray to Colombia is shown with due scope as his military career shifted to a date with Federal politics. When it came time for Harrison himself to take center stage, the elections are well covered as are the cabinet pressures that defined the mid-19th century president. There is also a look to the future as John Tyler takes a prominent role as the aging Harrison becomes the first president to die in office. Harrison is thus presented much like his contemporaries probably saw him. The Presidency but a capstone of his career with the moniker Old Tippecanoe telling of military glory decades prior.

Grade: A

3. Author- According to the sleeve jacket of the modern edition, Cleaves became deeply interested in the life of Harrison after realizing no such substantial biography had yet been written. In a rare instance for a former President, Cleaves was able to write with a clean slate. At his disposal was an untapped trove of letters, documents and accounts mostly from a century or more before the work was completed. Despite an apparent groundbreaking work on a forgotten President, there seems to be only one other book in print for Mr. Cleaves. Drawing on his many years in academia, Cleaves is cited mostly with Civil War research as in his work Rock of Chickamauga about George H. Thomas. Though a Civil War researcher would seem to be out of place for a work on War of 1812 hero Harrison, the theme rings similar. Whether it be a President of the United States or a Civil War General logically bringing scholarly glut, Cleaves shows his flair of bringing the forgotten back to life. With that resume and 100 years of partisan politics in the rearview mirror, there seems to be little bias or worldview in the way of good old fashioned research. What follows is an unbiased and balanced work on Harrison from a well respected author.

Grade: A

4. Length- With over two thirds of the book dedicated to military biography and history, Cleaves seems ready to jump into the epic lengths that may be expected for a “definitive” work. However, the work never goes too far beneath the surface. Conversely, there are instances that the work takes on longer biography characteristics. Cleaves does find time to explore Harrison’s family while still briskly moving the narrative forward. Those attempting to read a book on every president will find this perfect for Harrison. A military hero with little influence on the executive, this work displays all that is needed to understand the Presidency as it stood in 1840. On paper, this checks all the boxes of a short biography. Despite its seemingly shorter length, there are few stones unturned and one goes away feeling confident that the story was told completely.

Grade: B

5. Mission- Few missions are as simple as the one Cleaves set out to accomplish. With almost no academic biography on Harrison, there are no theories to build on nor conspiracies to debunk. He had unprecedented access to an untold story. As an academic it would have been a treasure for the research community for this old, grizzled vet to get his due. Length is not everything, but to constrain a work of this potential to 350 pages seems to only confirm the academic neglect of this former President. Cleaves set out to shine a spotlight on a man who had been President 100 years prior who would be completely unknown if it weren’t for history buffs and/or presidential placemat aficionados. Almost by default, the mission is accomplished as no academic has even come close to duplicating Cleaves’ work. Since the 1939 classic, short and shallow works have been the norm on Harrison research. Recent works will occasionally touch on Harrison’s impressive military career or showcase his short presidency, but it is Cleaves who accomplishes the mission in toto. For a cradle to grave narrative on the man, this is your best bet.

Grade: A-