Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

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Book: The American Presidents: Millard Fillmore

Author: Paul Finkelman

1. Date- By now you’ve been following the blog so intently (right?) that you are tired of outdated volumes of centuries past. Time to get into the 21st. What better way to ring in 2011 than with the man who is probably most foreign and unknown to the modern reader. There should be no surprise here. It is easy to see why a half century has passed since someone revisited the work of Robert Rayback and other Fillmore revisits. At a time we fondly remember a triumph over secession or dramatic strikers, Finkelman brings us the wallowing and indecisive Fillmore. His legacy is one of deference and inaction, hardly the Lincoln-esque heroes lionized from the antebellum or Civil War era. Make no mistake, giants of this era Grant, Stonewall, Lee etc. are well known even to the casual history fan. Finkelman makes it clear history is not kind to Fillmore. Calling him “thoroughly unsuccessful” and a “failure” Finkelman provides the presidential reader with the perspective of modern distaste. Anyone looking for a revisionist history or apologist for a man that seemed to epitomize a less than glamorous American past will find little in this 2011 work. There are some inherent flaws with such a contemporary look.  A very recent perspective can be unduly harsh and too willing to judge with a modern look. Not necessarily a bad thing, though. Fillmore doesn’t exactly having any hope of his stock rising anytime soon. Finkelman backs this brief volume up with a well researched if slightly biased biography.  Too soon?

Grade: A-

2. Scope- Finkelman, like all authors in the American Presidents project, sticks almost entirely to the cradle to grave model. While the length is much to be desired (more on that later) there is a consistent and dedicated goal of each book in the American Presidents series. The goal is to provide a traditional biography that covers the life of a president and not just an essay on the times or a deep dive into the presidency. Accordingly, this Fillmore work provides a rare straight scope for such an obscure president. Though his presidency is brief, Finkelman does spend a considerable of time in the pre-presidency before briskly rounding out the post-presidency. The scope is total though it does feel like a superficial ride with only minor looks at his family and his political contemporaries. Finkelman at times feels like he is checking boxes along the way and it makes it tough to separate the important from the anecdotal besides obvious benchmarks like his presidency and slavery. Did I mention slavery? Hope you enjoy discussions on the topic because Finkelman does. Though certainly within the bounds of scope Finkelman brings slavery across the entire narrative and chooses to let the topic dominate Fillmore’s life story. Ironically, this was the very issue that Fillmore spent a lifetime trying to keep on the backburner. His failure to do so perhaps makes Finkelman’s razor sharp focus even more profound. Scope is total but scope does not equal depth.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Another benefit to having a modern book is that Paul Finkelman is not nearly as obscure as some other authors in the Project. In fact, he is a quite prominent author of many antebellum works including Slave and the Founders and more than 25 works dealing with history and race relations.

As the clip above shows in abundance, Finkelman is one of the most highly respected historians in modern scholarship. In addition to appearing in major American newspapers, he is also a go to for historical documentaries from Ken Burns to films regarding Barry Bonds. Though his academic career has spanned many subjects, the 1850s has always been his specialty which makes his selection as Fillmore’s biographer a tremendously sound choice. Though he has many that disagree with him, his opinion is regarded as sound and respectful and a perfect voice for the complicated time that he has dedicated his career to understanding. His only flaw that comes with being so renown is that his often clear hatred of slavery can cloud his perspective. Instead of tackling slavery as a complex and tragic grey area as many historians tend to do with subjects antebellum, Finkelman gave Fillmore the for/against argument and based his entire criticism on the fact that Fillmore was in the negative. This bias made this work fall from glimpses of greatness.

Grade: A-

4. Length- 171 pages of Millard Fillmore. I’d imagine for most, this is 171 pages too many. For the Project, this entry ranks right at the bottom for shortest work allowed to be included. At publication of this post in the Spring of 2015, there seems to be no other choice for a second Fillmore entry. After consulting many other partner blogs and similar projects it was abundantly clear that the cradle to grave narratives so desired by the Project only appeared twice for the 13th President from Buffalo. Not to say that the American Presidents series is anything short of respectable. It is a series that has covered each President entirely and has provided an unprecedented look “compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for a scholar.” As a result there is a begrudging acceptance at the super brief work included here. However, the short length was not an out for Finkelman. As mentioned above, he spends nearly half the book addressing the slavery issue head-on even as his subject does everything possible to sweep it under the rug. With such a precious few pages seemingly available to Finkelman it does seem odd that he doesn’t address other gaps in Fillmore scholarship. For example, it seems there is no work too long or too short to mention either of his wives at length or his children. This possibly could have  spotlighted the tragic early deaths so common in the day. Like slavery, these would have been great representative life events of Fillmore to further the story of the 1850s. Though it is a short work to begin with, this feeling of being truncated is all too obvious. So, yes, the busy reader will be thrilled with the compactness, but the students and scholars of Fillmore will finish the book wondering if any new ground was covered at all. Whereas, Rayback’s 470 page work seemed too long at times, this work definitely feels too short. Perhaps Fillmore will one day get the Goldilocks treatment.

Grade: C+

5. Mission- It is impossible to analyze the mission of Finkelman’s work without understanding the book within its series. Beginning in 2004, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz sought out to recruit a new author for each president. With a varying degree of success they were able to cobble together an authoritative voice. The mission was to put modern eyes to the past. The books could bring a set of short biographies into Presidential scholarship to compliment those that are unwilling to slug through the 500+ page behemoths out there. Overall it is a success and has provided a perfect niche. Their selection of Paul Finkelman is a continuation of that. As mentioned above, he is a well respected scholar of the 1850s era  and was able to continue the brisk publication of the works. This process is what has made the project so successful. As with all the works the mission provides a great service for Presidents such as Fillmore. With alluring titans as Jackson and Lincoln sandwiching the era, the string of mediocre (or failures) Presidents leading up to the Civil War rarely get a look. This is mostly because modern eyes go back and find these figures even more insignificant and repugnant than when we left them. However, without series such as these we would never check in and revisit from time to time. In essence we were all given the disheartening update. Fillmore was still a failure and America still teetered along without strong leadership. We are still waiting for their historical liberation. It does not look like it will ever come. Glad we checked up on old Milly.

Grade: B+

Presidents Tournament First Round Results! (Part One)

Welcome Presidents Fans!

Below are the results of the first day of Round One for the Tournament. Each matchup will feature a consideration of both presidents judged on four categories:

-Performance in Crisis… A consideration on the biggest challenges during each individual’s presidency and their efforts to alleviate it.

-Foreign Policy… A consideration on America’s role during the Presidency and whether this individual’s policies furthered America’s cause.

-Domestic Policy… A consideration on America in the President’s time, specifically the economy and prosperity and how the average American fared as a result.

-Legacy… A consideration on the lasting visions of each President.

EAST REGION

5/2/14:

8) Herbert Hoover vs. 9) Benjamin Harrison

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Motto: One guy did nothing… Guess which one!

Overview: The first matchup brings the Hoover Administration, a devastatingly rocky end to the roaring 20s, and the Harrison Administration that led America into the “Gay Nineties.”

The Matchup:

HH (1929-1933)- If you know about Herbert Hoover, it is not likely you will speak poetically of his humanitarian efforts in war-torn Belgium. When Hoover took office in 1929, America was having a roaring end to the 1920s. Then it crashed. Barely eight months into office, the Great Depression descended on America. For the rest of his single term as President this sole issue was one full crisis. Hoover’s response was lackluster at best. Taking his cue from previous recessions and panics, Hoover felt the federal government could do little to ease the crisis. His meek efforts were laughably inept compared to the global catastrophe that grew worse by the day. There is an argument for the unfortunate man who preceded FDR. Though there was no playbook for a crisis such as the Depression. Sadly, the efforts needed to alleviate were unprecedented, a performance Hoover could not muster.

BH (1889-1893)- Many presidents would be happy to have as an uneventful one as Benjamin Harrison. He is a man whose claim to fame is being the only President ever to beat an incumbent and then lose re-election to an ex-president. Say that ten times fast. He is the last president to have a beard too. Cool. As for crises, however, there is no comparison to the strife Hoover encountered in the Depression. In Harrison’s time, the President was happily cast off as aloof and as a distant national figure when business leaders dictated daily life for the average American. Harrison simply played the role. He let business thrive, kept the tariff high and was “right” on money issues. Was he transformative? No. But, America was thriving before he came and still hummed when he left.

Harrison wins by default. 

7) Rutherford B. Hayes vs. 10) Ulysses S. Grant

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 Motto: A pair of generals do battle (cliche?)

Overview: Rutherford B. Hayes was the only elected President to not win the popular vote until Dubya came along. Grant’s victory was never in doubt. Hayes was a saint, with his critics calling his wife Lemonade Lucy. Grant had a barrage of cronies, smoked like a chimney and oversaw one of the most corrupt presidencies of all time. By history they are sequential, by fate they are squaring off!

The Matchup:

UG (1869-1977)- Grant left Appomattox Court House in 1865 with the South surrendered. His face was the most recognizable beside Lincoln’s. After the lackluster Andrew Johnson held the chief magistrate title, Grant triumphantly swept into the White House in 1869. Though he was wildly popular in an America that held generals on the highest of pedestals, Grant had his critics. His cabinet choices were a disaster. Scandals and outright corruption often forced Grant to dejectedly sulk in hotel lobbies. (Many historians contend that savvy insiders would follow him there and corral favors after his many whiskeys coining the modern term “lobbyist.”) Despite his criticisms, he was able to win re-election. Times remained tough. America went through the Panic of 1873 and the power of Grant increasingly became non-existent. Historians for decades canned his Presidency as a failed capstone on an otherwise successful career. However, Grant’s stock is rising. He was way ahead of his time on Reconstruction. He fought the Ku Klux Klan into politically unattainable waters even when it risked his re-election. It is not a stretch to say that without his military career, his firebrand opposition to Southern Nationalism would have sank him at the polls as a one-term President. As tepid Presidents of the 19th century continue to seem all too willing to cater to prejudice, Grant’s stand with the Radical Republicans will continue to raise his stock.

RH (1877-1881) -By 1876, Grant’s efforts to radically alter America had a nasty backlash. Indian Wars were flaring daily, there was widespread unrest in the south and the corruption of Grant’s cabinet shook American sensibilities. In walks Rutherford B. Hayes, a vanilla general from Ohio. His wife was a huge supporter of temperance and her anti-alcohol stand was very attractive to a capital city fed up with Grant’s antics. Hayes was safe, controllable and a total non-threat to business. One problem. Hayes did not win the popular vote. In a move that gave credence to the “smoke filled room,” political power brokers simply handed Hayes the election. The deal was simple. Though Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, he would be awarded the requisite electoral votes. He did all of this while catering to the South. Grant’s racially progressive efforts were instantly reversed. Called “Rutherfraud” (lol) from day one, Hayes really did not have much hope for support. His removal of federal troops from the South created a living hell for recently freed Blacks throughout the South. This move would have reverberations through the 20th century. The Democratic Party may have lost the 1876 election but they became a bastion for Jim Crow legislation and a near one party domination for about 100 years. Seriously. Through he had marginal successes especially in Civil Service reform and currency legislation, the Hayes Administration never distinguished itself. Like his predecessor, he was unable to channel his military success into a solid presidency. His time in office limped to completion in 1880. The wars with Indians still burned, unrest was daily in the news and the nation turned elsewhere for a solution. Hayes was not even nominated by his own party for re-election in 1880.

The Grant Stock Continue to Rise. 

Stay tuned for the rest of Round One!

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

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Book: Martin Van Buren

Author: Edward Morse Shepard

1. Date- Few casual fans of the project will be salivating at this rare relic from 1894. The writing style is firmly in yesteryear with a heavy emphasis on public works. This was high time for presidential biography that barely even mentions a private life while exploring the minute details of a public one. Put simply, it is a perfect illustration of how far the presidential biography has evolved. For better or worse there is no insinuation of impropriety, no emphasis on shady dealings and no real insight on his family life. Throwaway sentences accompany his early childhood life. This “Jesus-style” narrative leads a modern reader to believe he was born. He may have even lived a full life. However, it was on to the good stuff. Though scope is further explored in the next section, it is important to understand that most if not all works from the 1890s were expected to be depicted in this manner and a deep probing into Martin Van Buren “the man” would have swept this work to the dustbin or given it the brand of personal quackery. A far more interesting aspect of the date for this entry is the emphasis on moral implications. While this era is reflected upon through the slavery debate, the lasting wounds of patronage and the “spoils system” were still fresh. Almost in tandem in the frank discussion of slavery and its lasting legacy, the spoils system arrives in tow. This is not surprising given the author but the pervasive nature of the practice along with the subsequent damage it did to the American physique is heavily the reader’s thrust for objective discussion. While a Jefferson biography or even a tour of Monticello features the obligatory talk about slaves, Shepard seems to feel more than obligated to mention the spoils system. This is perhaps the most glaring example that this book is written in 1894 and not 1994. This fear stemming from slavery shows the inevitable downfall of being too close to your subject.

Grade: C+

2. Scope- As briefly discussed above, this is clearly and distinctly a work on Van Buren the public official and not the man. Though there is some discussion about his hometown of Kinderhook, this work almost always uses it to describe the Albany Registry or other directly public acts. It is not meant to explore what made the man tick. There is barely any mention of the fact that he was the son of a slaveowner, the first president born post-revolution and still the only president to hold English as a second language, speaking Dutch throughout his formative years. Barely 25 pages into his work, Shepard puts Van Buren as a state senator of New York, nearly halfway through his 12 year marriage to Hannah Hoes. For a discussion of his public views and career, Shepard’s narrative is solid. Despite no mention of his private life, his public is covered in full blister following Van Buren’s steady and sure accumulation of power. In this sense his scope is total, giving due coverage to his presidency and ex-presidency. Unlike most of his predecessors, Van Buren was more than a contender and at times assumed candidate to go back to the first place in the nation. The tales of his ultimate shortcoming in this regard bring this presidential biography to its strength. In fact, ironically, Shepard’s work on President Martin Van Buren really peaks in his discussion of the ex-president. The pace is perfect, the extenuating and contextual information is placed soundly, and the work that dulls along in an average way suddenly gets excellent. However, there are more misses in this work to overcome the lackadaisical yet complete scope.

Grade: B

3. Author- Perhaps no finer man at the turn of the 20th century could have written about the Empire State’s ultimate executive. When Shepard penned this work in 1894, 30+ years after Van Buren’s death, New York had thrived in post-war America. Despite the fact that skyscrapers and modern New York were still years away, Shepard had the unique perspective to see Van Buren as the political mastermind from Kinderhook. His critique of Van Buren’s dealings in the spoils system are hardly shocking as Shepard’s resume includes Chairman of the Brooklyn Civil Service Board and years of support to reform-minded Democrats. This bias does become apparent and makes some of the objectivity choppy as Shepard struggles to make excuses for Van Buren’s supposed impropriety. After his work on Van Buren, Shepard, this relic of Tammany Hall, became the consummate peacemaker, often being tapped to heal party divisions and antagonism, tasks that all too regularly fell to Mr. Van Buren himself. In a curious yet interesting insight on Shepard’s touch of brush with presidential life, the elder politician ran into a deadlock for his US Senate nomination in 1911. The leader of the “insurgent” Democrats? Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The man who was elected president in 1933, almost 100 years to the day that Vice President Van Buren was sworn into office. In 1894, the first authoritative biography on Martin Van Buren had the right man for the mission.

Grade: A-

4. Length- Though clocking in nearly at 400 pages, Shepard’s work would easily fall quite short of that number had a modern publisher done the work. Reprints often have the work at 200-225 pages which firmly places this work in the short biography category. That is not to say there is anything lacking in the story. In true short biography form, this work goes from issue to issue quite rapidly but often giving enough information to progress the narrative. For a short work there are also many times that issues are explored specifically and then lightly revisited later. In this sense Shepard’s writing style shines as the purposely crafted brevity removes all dangers of a lagging work. This speed read would be perfect for a modern reader with the extreme caution that this work is indeed from 1894. There is much political reality that is assumed to the reader and there is no time to fill in modern eyes. Shepard expects you to be caught up to 1894 because he does not have the space to bring you up to speed. As long as you know that going in, you’ll be fine. If not, this short work may be done quickly with an awful lot of head scratching as the result.

Grade: C+

5. Mission- Without a clear introduction or specific statement of purpose, Shepard allows his work to speak for itself. It is clear that he hopes to inform as well as extol in this volume as slavery and spoils system clearly weigh on the moral fiber of late-19th century readers. Both topics receive extensive attention all within the chronological evolution of Van Buren the political with almost a total lack of Van Buren the man. From start to finish, the work moves at a brisk pace as the events seem to affect the man and then suddenly the reverse. Shepard does an excellent job of showing how the progressive and ahead of the curve nature of Van Buren slowly but surely fell behind. Shepard creates a story about a man struggling to keep his political fortitude while the nation slowly unraveled to Civil War. Perhaps fittingly, the story ends in the heat of the Civil War, just as Van Buren does. There is nothing left to tell. Shepard assumes the audience already knows that story. Assumption can be dangerous. As for assumption in this mission, it hurts the overall effort as determined as it seems.

Grade: B-