What makes a great president? “Great presidents possess, or are possessed by, a vision of an ideal America,” say the editors of the American Presidency, a series of presidential biographies. “Great presidents also have a deep psychic connection with the needs, anxieties, and dreams of people.” “I do not believe,” said President Woodrow Wilson, “that any man can lead who does not act . . . under the impulse of a profound sympathy with those whom he leads—a sympathy which is insight—an insight which is of the heart rather than of the intellect.”
What follows is a summary of ten presidents who led our nation in the 35 years between the Era of Good Feelings and the advent of the Civil War. It was not an easy time to lead as the nation was undergoing tremendous social and economic change while at the same time being held hostage by the slaveholding South. Few presidents rose to the occasion. One achieved near-greatness while two others share the distinction of being among our five worst presidents.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (1825-1829) — John Quincy Adams succeeded at everything he did—except at being president. He was a tremendously effective foreign diplomat, perhaps our greatest secretary of state, and as congressman he was an indefatigable opponent of slavery (Congress enacted the gag rule to silence him). As an attorney he was instrumental in winning the freedom of 39 African captives aboard the schooner Amistad. But as our nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams was pretty much a disaster. How to explain it? He lost touch with the nation. He was like the grand marshal in a parade who gets too far out in front and loses connection with the marching band. Adams was brilliant but ahead of his time in seeking to modernize America with the building of an extensive network of roads and canals, a national university, and a naval academy similar to West Point. He also wanted the government to fund scientific expeditions and a national astronomical observatory that he characterized as a “lighthouse of the sky.” He was stymied again and again by a Congress controlled by his political enemies, most of whom were states’ rights Democrats who wanted to limit rather than increase the power of the Federal government. Also, as talented as Adams was in negotiating treaties with European countries, he was out of his depth in negotiating land deals with Native Americans, and in the end he could not protect them. Writes one historian: “His effort to protect the Indians under the legal authority of the federal government gained him nothing but the hatred of those Southerners who lusted after Indian territory and could hardly wait for the next election to replace him in the White House with Andrew Jackson.”
ANDREW JACKSON (1829-1837) — Andrew Jackson was going to fix the mess in Washington. Sound familiar? In 1829, as newly elected president, Jackson arrived in the nation’s capital with a laundry list of reforms that for the most part he accomplished. He paid off the national debt (the only president ever to do so), shut down the National Bank against the advice of Congress and three treasury secretaries (he fired two of them), curbed government abuse by inaugurating rotation in office (a.k.a. the “spoils system”), and towered over the three greatest political leaders of the age—Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. His greatest legacy was preserving the Union during the nullification crises (he threatened to hang outspoken John Calhoun from the nearest tree should South Carolina act on its threat to secede). There is a darker side to Jackson’s presidency--he was a committed slave holder, and he led the movement to have Native American tribes removed from the Southeast and relocated to lands west of the Mississippi. And he was merciless in his use of the veto to prevent anything resembling progressive legislation.
While Jackson enacted real change in Washington, he could not stop the federal government from becoming larger still, and he could not stop the national shift from agriculture and small towns to industry and large cities. In short, he could not stop progress and modernity from overtaking the nation. He favored the southern planters and northern farmers who elected him president, but he opposed the demands for higher wages and better working conditions for factory workers in the Northeast. While he shut down the National Bank, he could not stop the proliferation of state banks, nor do away with paper money, nor stop speculation in stocks and in land.
MARTIN VAN BUREN (1837-1841) — Van Buren had the misfortune of following a folk hero in office. How could he possibly measure up to “Old Hickory”? He couldn’t. Worse, he inherited the nation’s longest-lasting recession in our nation’s history (six years), which began within a few days of taking office. Van Buren was the supreme party man. From “the plain Republicans of the North” and “the planters of the South” he cobbled together the Democratic Party that made Andrew Jackson president. Jackson rewarded Van Buren with making him vice president for his second term and his heir apparent to the White House. Like Jackson (and Jefferson before them both) Van Buren railed at the perceived evil of bankers and big business while the real evil of the day—slavery—went unchecked.
In the 1830s, while Jackson and Van Burn were presidents, a religious revival swept the nation, since known as the Second Great Awakening. One of the results was the abolition movement, which would so offend the honor of Southern slaveholders. Similar movements gained force and spoke out against a myriad of other evils—inequality of women, intemperance, prostitution, imprisonment for debt, lack of public education, wretched treatment of the helpless and insane, and the like. At the same time, a transportation and market revolution was sweeping the nation: turnpike construction, a canal boon, steamships, and railroads, which were drawing more areas of the country into the growing market economy. Van Buren, meanwhile, preoccupied with appeasing Southern demands and keeping his disparate Democratic Party together, was increasingly disconnected with what was happening across the country. In the midst of recession, he urged citizens to tighten their belts, dispense with paper money and banks, avoid buying on credit and spend only silver and gold coins, of which there was precious few as the economy sunk ever lower. Of course, Van Buren didn’t stand a chance of being reelected.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON (1841) — “Old Tippecanoe” they called him. He was the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe and the presidential candidate of a new political party, the Whigs. After being elected, he caught pneumonia and died, after 32 days in office.
JOHN TYLER (1841-1845) — John Tyler was the second half of the Whig presidential ticket of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” John Tyler was an afterthought, a pro-slavery Virginian, a former Jacksonian Democrat, and now Whig. He was added to the ticket to assure uneasy Southerners that slavery would be safe in a Whig administration. When Harrison died, Tyler became the accidental president, the closet Democrat the Whigs had not counted on. No one was more shocked than Henry Clay. Clay wanted to be president, but events always seemed to conspire against him. If he couldn’t get elected, the next best thing was to elect a president he could control—that would be William Henry Harrison. But after one month, Harrison died quite suddenly. Before anyone could figure out who should replace him (the Constitution was unclear on succession), Tyler moved into the White House and assumed office. He could read the Constitution and knew there was nothing in it to stop him. Later, the passage of the 25th Amendment would justify his decision.
Henry Clay, who saw his opportunity to become president usurped by Tyler, never forgave him. On top of that, Tyler would not be controlled by Clay or by anyone else. He was well-schooled in the law, and well-schooled in Jeffersonian democracy—small government, states’ rights, no central bank, metal money, and a low tariff—the very things Clay and the Whigs were against. This became crystal clear when Tyler vetoed the bank bill. The Whigs retaliated by kicking him out of the party and Whig Congressmen attempted to have him impeached (they failed). And that was only Tyler’s first year in office. Fortunately for Tyler—and the nation—after six years of economic depression, the economy began to recover in Tyler’s second year in office. Tyler was unable to capitalize on it. He wasn’t charismatic, and by choosing to walk the middle ground between North and South he didn’t please anyone. Of course, he didn’t stand a chance of being reelected.
JAMES K. POLK (1845-1849) — Polk was that rare president who told the nation what he intended to do and did it. He said he would serve one term and achieve four goals: lower the tariff, create an independent treasury in place of a national bank, acquire Oregon from the Britain, and acquire California from Mexico. The first two goals were within easy reach. The latter two? Not so much. At one point he risked placing the United States in the untenable position of having to fight a war on two fronts—in the Southwest with Mexico and in the Northwest with Britain.
James K. Polk would have been at home among today’s faceless corporate managers who do not lead by building consensus but rather operate behind closed doors consumed with endless analysis. Like President Jimmy Carter, Polk was a micromanager, but without Carter’s deep-seated humanity. Having successfully bluffed Britain with the threat of war in the Northwest, he was handed the Oregon territory. Six weeks later he signed the new tariff bill into law. Shortly thereafter the legislature passed his bill that made the U.S. Treasury function as a central bank—sort of. That left starting war with hapless Mexico. Which brings us to a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln. He was against the war, as were the political leader he greatly admired, Henry Clay, and former president and now congressman John Quincy Adams. They believed the war—which the U.S. had provoked—was being fought solely for expansionist aims and was ethically indefensible. Mute on the issue was South Carolinian John Calhoun who saw the war as an opportunity to spread slavery into vast new territories that already included the annexation of Texas. The term “Manifest Destiny” was coined at this time. Polk achieved his four goals, but at what cost? Almost 13,000 American soldiers had died, and Polk himself, exhausted after four years without a day of vacation, died three months after leaving office.
ZACHARY TAYLOR (1849-1850) — It was the best of times and the worst of times, as Charles Dickens would say. The nation was thriving economically, and victory in the Mexican-American War and the treaty with Britain had created the United States we recognize today—from sea to shining sea. With the arrival of the railroad and the telegraph, the quality of life for most Americans was improving rapidly. Yet the South’s continued threat of secession was making it the worst of times, too. Nothing could appease the South except possibly making slavery legal in every square foot of the United States. One of the ironies of the Mexican-American war is that the military leader most responsible for defeating the Mexican army (Major General Zachary Taylor) should, as the next president, be faced with what to do with the spoils of victory—Texas, California, and the New Mexico territory. Zachary Taylor was a Southerner and a slave holder, but he was no advocate of extending “the peculiar institution” outside the southeastern United States. Taylor was against the annexation of Texas and against war with Mexico, but being a good soldier he carried out orders. Now, within a year of defeating Mexico, he was president of the United States. Whether or not to extend slavery into the new territories was the great issue of his presidency, but he didn’t live to see the outcome. He died unexpectedly after 18 months in office.
MILLIARD FILLMORE (1850-1853) — Zachary Taylor and his successor, vice president Milliard Fillmore, were remarkably consistent on the extension of slavery—they were against it. First Taylor, then Fillmore, held firm during the long and rancorous debate in Congress. One of the main sticking points was the Texas-New Mexico border. Large as it was, Texas was claiming the New Mexico territory as far as the Rio Grande, which is to say nearly all of New Mexico. The Omnibus Bill before Congress would have given Texas what it wanted. The other big issue was California and whether or not it could decide for itself the question of slavery. American citizens residing in California were against it, but Southern politicians— notably John Calhoun—insisted the choice was not theirs to make. After Taylor’s death the Omnibus Bill morphed into the Compromise of 1850, which settled the Texas-New Mexico boundary-line to where it is today, and California entered the Union as free state. Despite their threats, the South didn’t secede in 1850. Rather, it grudgingly contented itself with Texas as a new slave state, and the Fugitive Slave Law, which Fillmore spent his remaining time in office trying vainly to enforce. As if to add insult to injury, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in 1852 and became an instant best seller in the North. Nobody was happy on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and Fillmore failed to get reelected.
FRANKLIN PIERCE (1853-1857) — It’s tempting to say Franklin Pierce was the second coming of John Tyler (Tyler II) but that would be unfair to John Tyler. Both considered themselves as men of principle who would not compromise an inch—pragmatism be damned. Both became so unpopular their parties disowned them and they were not reelected. In Tyler’s case, he tried to walk a middle line between Northern and Southern interests, but might have fared better had he supported the policies of the party that elected him—the Whigs. Pierce, on the other, was a “doughface,” a northerner with southern sympathies, and spent his presidency trying to appease the South. In doing so, he lost the support of the North. As far as the South, there was little chance he was going to satisfy their voracious appetite for more slave territory, or to keep from insulting their delicate sense of pride and Southern honor. Tyler couldn’t do it, and he was a Virginian. Pierce, from New Hampshire, made every effort to support Southern interests and made himself look foolish in trying. Pierce was handsome, courteous, and out of touch, our first empty-suit president. He is exceeded only by James Buchanan as our worst president ever.
JAMES BUCHANAN (1857-1861) — It was like the scene in a movie where everything goes incredibly wrong and the main character is the last to find out. In this case, the main character was the President of the United States, James Buchanan. In December 1860, he realized too late that his good friends and political advisors—all deep rooted Southerners—were no longer listening to him. They were busy making plans for the immediate secession of the Southern slave states. Unlike the movie character, Buchanan sees no solution and becomes paralyzed with fear. “His hair was askew,” writes one historian. “Usually well informed, he forgot orders that he had given and dispatches that he had read. He made his advisors come to the upstairs library, unable some days to lift himself out of bed. He cursed and wept, and his hands trembled.”
The biggest failure of the previous president, Franklin Pierce, was mishandling the Kansas-Nebraska Act that brought the nation a step closer to civil war. Surely, Buchanan wouldn’t make the same mistake. He was a proven negotiator who had served three presidents—twice as a foreign minister and once as secretary of state. What the nation didn’t realize was just how far Buchanan’s political views tilted south. A northerner from Pennsylvania, he surrounded himself with Southerners whose company he preferred. He made them advisors and Cabinet officers, as the ones he confided in and on whose judgement he relied. Buchanan inherited a number of problems not of his making: (1) the “Bloody Kansas” crisis that still raged, (2) the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which came days after he entered office; (3) the Panic of 1857, and (4) a crisis brewing in Utah involving the Mormons.
Without a National Bank (a.k.a. lender of last resort) there was little Buchanan could do about the recession. He couldn’t reverse the Dred Scott decision either, but he could have joined with 80 percent of Americans outside the South outraged by the decision. Instead, he railed at Northern abolitionists and embraced the decision. Instead of sending federal troops to stop the bloodletting in Kansas, he sent them to Utah where negotiations were underway and a military presence was unneeded. Buchanan had one last chance to redeem himself when faced with a bogus state constitution cooked up by the aggressive and highly vocal proslavery minority in Kansas. Instead of denouncing the state constitution as a fraud and travesty of justice, he authorized the bribing of Congressmen in both Houses to assure passage, which would have made Kansas a slave state. It didn’t work. The measure failed and Buchanan’s bribery attempts were exposed. Free elections were held and Kansas entered the Union as a free state, in January 1861. In the critical months between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, Buchanan did absolutely nothing as the South fortified itself with illegally confiscated Union arms and prepared for war. “I meant well,” Buchanan said upon leaving office. When he wrote his memoirs, he blamed everyone but himself.
Coming up, the bearded presidents—from Abraham Lincoln to Benjamin Harrison, from the Civil War and Reconstruction to the Gilded Age.