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The Bearded Presidents

They're the Bearded Presidents—or, if you will, the Great Emancipator and the Seven Dwarfs.

No president before or after these bewhiskered eight has worn a beard. They governed from the Civil War and Reconstruction to the end of the Gilded Age—from 1861 to 1897. Except for Andrew Johnson, they all wore some form of facial hair. Five were ex-Civil War generals. Except for Abraham Lincoln, as presidents they were mostly an undistinguished lot, and one of them, Andrew Johnson, ranks among our worst presidents ever. Below is a summary of their time in the White House, beginning with our 16th president.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1861-1865) — As the Civil War dragged on, and defeat followed defeat, nearly every segment of Northern opinion showed outright distrust of President Lincoln. Conservative Republicans, War Democrats, Copperheads, Radicals—all turned against him. Day after day indignant Senators and irate Representatives stalked into the White House, blustering, threatening, demanding that the president do something, anything.

Attack Richmond!

Free the slaves!


Lincoln was accused of dragging his feet and doing nothing. To such critics Lincoln said, “My policy is to have no policy.” To men with plans and axes to grind, the president’s remark was incomprehensible. Had it been anyone else, they would have thought he was a simpleton, indeed, many did. However, in saying, “My policy is to have no policy,” he was enunciating several political principles: Lincoln was (1) declining to become attached to inflexible solutions or to idealogical labels. Consistency meant little to Lincoln. He was only concerned with getting results; (2) in rejecting ideological labels, Lincoln tried to face political reality as it was, not as he would have it become; (3) the ability to face reality means, of course, a willingness to change with events. Lincoln willingly admitted that his opinions and actions were shaped by forces beyond his control.

Like all great leaders, Lincoln knew that visionary ideals are no good unless the people are ready for them. When he took office, the people were not ready to fight a war to end slavery, so he spoke of preserving the Union. By the end of his second year in office, they were ready—that’s when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Having taken the high moral ground, only then did the North begin to win the war.

ANDREW JOHNSON (1865-1869) — The man who succeeded Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, that the Civil War had put an end to involuntary servitude in the United States. To enforce the outcome, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) to make it official, and was now committing itself to forcing Black suffrage on the South with the use of federal troops. Johnson, however, was having none of it. He believed African Americans to be inferior, and as president was determined NOT to give them the vote. Mind you, Johnson was picked by Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election to be his vice president. But when the Great Emancipator was assassinated and Johnson became president, Johnson was far from inclined to carry out Lincoln’s post-war policies for the South.

Johnson’s racial prejudice spoiled his presidency. He dug in his heels and spent nearly all four years in office fighting back against the Republican Congress, which in turn impeached him for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Johnson was acquitted by a single vote and finished his term bitter but unbowed.

Meanwhile, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment (1866) and Fifteenth Amendment (1869), which made Black civil rights and Black suffrage the law of the land. With the exception of Ulysses S. Grant, the presidents who followed lacked the political will to enforce these laws. It wouldn’t be until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s that African Americans would enjoy anything that resembled equal protection under the law, due process of law, and the right to vote.

ULYSSES S. GRANT (1869-1877) — Until recent times, historians have placed Grant down among the bottom feeders of worst presidents—James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce. All those scandals, and Grant out of his depth as president, and the economy tanking during his second term. Tsk, tsk. Recent scholarship, however, has revealed the scandals to be overrated, Grant’s effectiveness as chief executive to be underrated, and the topper—no president did more to advance civil rights for African Americans until Harry S. Truman.

When he took office, Grant faced three major problems: (1) the civil rights of blacks in the South; (2) the place of Indians in the West, and (3) the flood of greenback currency across the country. In how he addressed these issues Grant showed true leadership. Reconstruction was the most difficult task. When the Ku Klux Klan started terrorizing and murdering blacks and their white supporters, Grant persuaded Congress to pass a law prohibiting such acts, and sent in the army and U.S. marshals to enforce it. Grant broke the Klan’s back and Southern blacks voted in 1872 in numbers not seen again until 1968. But in two decisions in 1876 (Grant’s last year in office), the Supreme Court gutted enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Ku Klux Klan Act, a devastating setback that would not be righted for 100 years.

Grant blamed settlers for the fighting in the West between settlers and Indians. He wanted to see Indians blend into American society, and tried to do so by protecting them on reservations, making good on promised funds, providing education, and providing individuals with title to land. He replaced corrupt officials with Quakers and churchmen. Violence lessened for a time, until gold was found on reservation land in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

When Grant took office, inflation was rampant, thanks to $400 million in greenback dollars issued to finance the Civil War. When financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk tried to corner the gold market, which would have depreciated the currency even more, Grant ordered the Treasury Department to sell $4 million in government gold to keep the price down, and the Gold Ring was defeated. Later, he pressured Congress to pass the Resumption Act, requiring all greenbacks to be withdrawn from circulation by 1879, thereby returning America to the gold standard.

The biggest problem for Grant was image—he didn’t have one. You would have trouble picking him out of a crowd. In the army, he was passed over for promotion until Lincoln spotted a quality in Grant his other generals lacked—he fought. As president, Grant didn’t blow his own horn—he expected his achievements to speak for him. They did, but as president it took 100 years before historians took notice.

RUTHERFORD B. HAYES (1877-1881) — Hayes has the distinction of winning the closest presidential election in history. The early returns pointed to a victory for Hayes’ Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden. The Republicans challenged the results, however, and a special electoral commission declared Hayes the winner by one electoral vote. The Democrats protested, and Hayes made a deal with the devil, so to speak. In exchange for the presidency, he ordered the last remaining federal troops out of the South.

This deal ended the era of Reconstruction.

As a part of the deal, Hayes also agreed to let Southerners handle race relations themselves—tantamount to letting the foxes overseer the henhouse—initiating a pattern of presidential inaction on the issue that would last until the middle of the 20th century.

There were three sectional setbacks under Hayes: (1) South: newly won civil and political rights for Blacks were swept away by white Democratic rule; (2) North: several violent railroad strikes hurt the economy; and (3) West: deadly clashes between Irish Americans and recent Chinese immigrants led to years of social unrest.

Despite these sectional problems, Hayes managed some small successes during his term, including the enactment of limited civil service reform measures. Under Hayes’ watch, the economy recovered and expanded as never before—with steel, oil, and investment bankers ascendant— ushering in the Gilded Age. As he planned to do, Hayes left office after one term.

JAMES A. GARFIELD and CHESTER A. ARTHUR (1881-1885) — Their names seem interchangeable. They even share the same middle initial. They’re among the Gilded Age presidents—bearded, bland, ex-Civil War generals. Novelist Thomas Wolfe referred to them as “the lost Americans: their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together . . . which was which?”

The Gilded Age was the time when the captains of industry (Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan) were larger-than-life characters with reach and power that overshadowed U.S. presidents. The federal government itself seemed to have forgotten its purpose, had copped a laissez-faire attitude, and did little as business giants dominated the times.

In the latter part of the 19th century, presidential candidates were seldom chosen “for firmness or executive grasp or clarity of national vision,” writes one historian, “but rather because they could appeal to conflicting voting blocs.” It wasn’t until the 34th ballot of the Republican National Convention that James A. Garfield was nominated. His running mate—Chester A. Arthur—was chosen to appease an unhappy Republican Party faction known as “the Stalwarts.” On election day, Garfield won with a margin of less than one-tenth of one percent. What kind of president would he be? In his inaugural address he focused one-third of his speech on African Americans living in the South. “There can be no permanent disenfranchised peasantry in the United States,” he declared. To prohibit Black American from voting was “a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the government itself.” Concerning Southern schools, he said, “I am going to keep that subject before me at all times.”

What kind of president would James A. Garfield be? We’ll never know. Four months into his presidency he was shot twice in the back, lingered for two months, and died. Vice President Chester A. Arthur took the presidential oath.

What kind of president would Chester A. Arthur be? For one, he wouldn’t act like a Stalwart. The Stalwarts were centered in New York City and favored the “spoils system”—rewarding the party faithful with cushy patronage jobs. As a Stalwart, Arthur had held a plum patronage job himself, as collector for the New York Customhouse—until being fired by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

As president, it was expected that Arthur would fight against reform of the “spoils system.” As it turned out, that was not the case at all. Garfield’s assassination made even token patronage-busting reforms politically unavoidable. Arthur didn’t merely pay lip service to reform—he got on board. Having concluded that the federal civil service system was in the public interest, he supported the Pendleton Bill that would reform the federal service system. He also completed the Garfield-initiated investigation into Post Office corruption. When the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional, he called for a legislative countermeasures to protect African Americans against discrimination—to no avail.

Arthur's last official act was to order a pension for a destitute and dying Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1884, Arthur made a halfhearted run at renomination but the Republicans chose James G. Blaire instead.

GROVER CLEVELAND (1885-1889; 1893-1897) — Grover Cleveland has the distinction of being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, and to be the only Democrat elected president between Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson (a space of 52 years). Also distinctive was his meteoric rise to power. In a span of four years he rose from being mayor of Buffalo, New York, to governor of the state of New York, to president of the United States. People who experience such easy success are seldom humble, and Cleveland was no exception. Being a Jacksonian Democrat, he did not favor a strong central government. Indeed, his gaze seems to have been ever backward. That he should find himself as president at a very hectic time of unprecedented economic growth and social upheaval is an irony that apparently was lost on Cleveland. He was not a deep thinker, nor a man given to reflection, nor a man who enjoyed literature, music, the theater, or travel. Nor had he the slightest interest in economic theory, and while there is no record that he ever pronounced the words “laissez faire,” it was characteristic of his presidency. He said it was not the job of the government to support the people but quite the opposite. “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” When labor struck, as with the Pullman Strike in Chicago, Cleveland sent in the U.S. Military to break it up (the first president to use the army in this way). On his watch, labor and farmers did not have a friend in the White House. During both of his administrations, Cleveland was charged with indifference to suffering and poverty. Among the great issues of the Gilded Age presidents--and Cleveland’s presidency was no exception--was the debate of gold vs. silver as the nation’s money standard. Of course, Cleveland favored gold.

When Cleveland retook the White House in 1893, the nation faced a crisis: the widespread apprehension that the U.S. was about to abandon the gold standard. Cleveland attempted to allay such fears, but his efforts were weak. The apprehension turned into financial panic, then economic depression. Cleveland believed much of the problem was the result of a depletion of the nation’s gold reserve, and sought help from financier J.P. Morgan—“with hat in hand,” as one historian put it. Morgan and his syndicate of Wall Street bankers bought U.S. Treasury bonds which restored the gold reserve, but did little to ignite the nation’s stalled economic engine.

Much to Cleveland’s chagrin, the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the 1896 presidential election was populist William Jennings Bryan, who favored silver as the money standard and became famous for his “Cross of Gold speech.” Though chagrined, the irony was lost on Grover Cleveland.

BENJAMIN HARRISON (1889-1893) — It seems the only distinction of the Benjamin Harrison presidency was his wife’s decision to erect the first White House Christmas tree, that and the fact that his grandfather William Henry Harrison had once been president. Among U.S. presidents, Benjamin Harrison is nearly forgotten. That said, Harrison was a man of undoubted integrity. As a private citizen in Indiana, he formed his own regiment and served selflessly in the Civil War. As president, he was loath to take advantage of the spoils system by appointing cronies and campaign supporters. Refreshingly, he made appointments on merit rather than party affiliation. His cabinet appointments consisted of six lawyers and two businessmen.

Harrison’s first two years in office were distinguished by landmark legislation—including the first Anti-Trust Act, the Forest Reserve Act, the Silver Purchase Act, and the McKinley Tariff. Admittedly, Harrison had little actual involvement with these bills, but he set a precedent by meeting regularly with congressional leaders and other members of Congress. Unlike his predecessor—and successor—Grover Cleveland, he seldom used the veto power. He was conscious of race and racial prejudice North and South and exhibited a decided absence of the usual political hedging of most Gilded Age presidents.

According to one historian, Benjamin Harrison “exerted greater leadership in matters of race, no matter how unsuccessful, than any other of the post-Reconstruction Presidents, not excluding Theodore Roosevelt.”

Where Harrison stumbles as president is with the many scandals that plagued his administration. It didn’t help that Harrison was a loner and worked with a small presidential staff, and therefore had little time to be a crisis manager. He did what he could but too frequently crises overwhelmed his administration and reduced his effectiveness as chief executive. The coup-de-grace for Harrison’s presidency occurred when the economy nose-dived into the nation’s second worst depression less than a year after he had proclaimed, “There never has been a time in our history when work was so abundant or when wages were as high. . . .”

How’s that for bad timing?

The end for President Harrison was not political but personal—the death of his wife, Caroline. His last five months in office were spent grieving.

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