Former Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon.

Former Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon.

When President Martin Van Buren died, 19 of his successors had already been born. At the onset of the Civil War, four of them — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan — joined Van Buren in that exclusive category, former presidents. That was the only time five former presidents were living at one time until 1993 when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were still kicking around. It happened again in 2001 with Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton. The quintet that formed a sort of elite gallery watching the Union unravel are usually ranked in the bottom dozen or so when retrospective experts, who never faced such decisions, cast their ballots. But none of the former presidents saw themselves that way and, in that rough-and-tumble time, they didn’t pose as aloof elder statesmen while Abraham Lincoln dealt with the crisis of secession. What they did do is the subject of The Presidents’ War by Chris DeRose.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

This is an unusual and possibly unique approach to the history of the three decades leading up to the war and the prosecution of the war itself. The Civil War is sometimes remembered simplistically as a war over slavery — either over whether slavery should be permitted in new states as the nation expanded westward or whether it should be abolished altogether. Both of these questions were at issue, but the controversy was more complicated than that because it was intertwined with the evolving understanding of the relationship between the states and what was then often referred to as the “general government” — the federal government. The rights of individual states vis-a-vis the federal government are still the subject of often contentious discourse, but the question was far less settled in the decades before and immediately after the Civil War than it is now.

Andrew Jackson 3

Differing views over that question led to a crisis in 1832 when South Carolina declared that tariffs imposed by the federal government that year and in 1828 were null and void. Andrew Jackson, a tough customer, was president at the time, and he ordered that the duties be collected by whatever means were necessary and he formally declared that states did not have the power to nullify federal regulations or leave the federal union. The crisis was put off, in a sense, by a political compromise; it was put off, but not settled, and it would simmer and occasionally come to a boil until it exploded in secession and war. After Jackson, eight men, beginning with Van Buren, would exercise the executive authority while these fundamental questions remained unresolved and repeatedly threatened to rupture the union. Two of them — William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, and Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, would die in office and would not play a significant role in government, and one of them, James Knox Polk, the 11th president, would die shortly after leaving office in 1849. Those five who would live to see the nation descend into the bloodiest war in its history had differing points of view on the seminal questions of the time. Although they are usually overlooked or derided in accounts of this period, DeRose explains in detail how they all were engaged in promoting their positions and often were active participants in the political dynamics of the time.

JOHN TYLER

JOHN TYLER

Perhaps the most interesting character DeRose brings back into the light is John Tyler of Virginia, the first man to serve as president without being elected to the office (succeeding Harrison, who died after a month in the White House) and the only former president to become a sworn enemy of the United States.  During the administration of James Buchanan, Tyler acted as a go-between seeking an accommodation between the United States and the newly formed Confederacy. Tyler promoted and chaired a ill-fated peace convention in 1861 and then participated in the convention in which Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Tyler was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, although he died before he took his seat. Although the circumstances were dubious, this last achievement made him one of only four former presidents to serve in public office, the others being John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, and William Howard Taft.

MARTIN VAN BUREN

MARTIN VAN BUREN

Martin Van Buren of New York, who served one term as president, had ambitions to return to the White House, but they were ultimately frustrated. He was one of many Americans who held that slavery was morally wrong but that it was protected by the Constitution. Although he was initially opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln, Van Buren ultimately supported him and the war effort. Millard Fillmore, also of New York, was the last Whig president and, therefore, the last president who was not associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. When the crisis had reached the point of no return and Lincoln called on the northern states to raise troops, Van Buren supported him, as did Fillmore. Van Buren argued that “the attack upon our flag and the capture of Fort Sumter by the secessionists could be regarded in no other light than as the commencement of a treasonable attempt to overthrow the Federal Government by military force. ….”

MILLARD FILLMORE

MILLARD FILLMORE

Fillmore was elected vice president on the ticket with Zachary Taylor and was vaulted into the presidency by Taylor’s death. He, too, skated on the thin ice between his own professed abhorrence of slavery and both the fact that it was protected by the Constitution and his desire to avoid antagonizing the southern states. He was sufficiently repulsed by slavery, in fact, that he raised money and contributed some of his own to enable his coachman to buy his own freedom and that of his family, but Fillmore supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law because it was the law of the land and because, like his four contemporaries, he did not want to provoke the South into Civil War. Three years after he left office, he unsuccessfully ran for president on the ticket of the anti-Catholic American Party, although he himself was not anti-Catholic. Although he was opposed to secession, he did not support Lincoln’s decision to emancipate slaves as a means of expediting an end to the war.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, who was a brigadier general during the war with Mexico, was a Democrat who was opposed to secession but openly supported the institution of slavery in the South. He was a close associate of Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy, and antagonistic toward Lincoln. Pierce, who was beset by personal tragedy and drinking problems, attempted to undermine Lincoln’s policies by organizing an unprecedented “commission” of the living former presidents to mediate the differences between North and South. The commission, which would have been heavily weighted against Lincoln’s positions, never materialized.

James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, had adopted the problematic view that states did not have a right to secede from the union and that the federal government did not have the power to stop them by force.

JAMES BUCHANAN

JAMES BUCHANAN

Buchanan, who had had a distinguished career, particularly as a diplomat, failed to preserve the peace between North and South and left office stinging with the idea that he would be regarded as a failure as president. It wasn’t known at the time, but he had exerted pressure on the Supreme Court to broaden its pending ruling in the Dredd Scott case to not only determine Scott’s status but to state that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. He spent his retirement years at his home in Wheatland, but he persistently trumpeted the idea that his policies were precursors to Lincoln’s. Buchanan busied himself during that time writing a memoir in hopes of vindicating himself, but he is generally regarded as having been hopelessly inept, at least with regard to secession.

DeRose covers a lot of ground in this book, but by telling the story in terms of the presidents who tried to cope with nagging and explosive issues, he brings as clarity to the subject that is not always present in accounts of that complex period. And besides writing a history of the run-up to the war, he provides a chronicle of the evolution of a public office — the presidency — noting that the five former presidents who lived to see secession and war had “feared that he would break the customs of the office that they had established and carefully cultivated. Their concerns were well founded. The American presidency is now a dynamic institution and powerful force for principle in the hands of the proper occupant…. Often American has been bereft of the leadership it wanted. But … in hours of great crisis for the Republic, America has never failed to find the reader to match the moment.”

GROVER CLEVELAND

Some colleagues and I were traveling to Caldwell College recently, and just before we turned off Bloomfield Avenue onto the campus, I pointed out a cottage across the street. “That’s the birthplace of Grover Cleveland,” I said. Someone in the car might have grunted — I’m not sure — but otherwise there was no reaction.

How could this be? Cleveland was the only president born in New Jersey and one of only two who died here. But we get to count him twice, because he was both the 22nd and 24th presidents. And nobody cares?

OK, he wasn’t Mr. Glamor — no Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or either of the Roosevelts. In fact, he was part of that lineup of boring personalities from Rutherford B. Hayes to William McKinley. Even his non-consecutive terms aren’t enough to make his name a household word, or even vaguely familiar.

Grover Cleveland’s birthplace

Well, my colleagues might disregard Cleveland, but he gets a lot of attention in Kenneth C. Davis’s new book, Don’t Know Much about the American Presidents. Davis reports that Cleveland was only four years old when his family moved to New York and that he didn’t return to New Jersey until after he had retired from the presidency.

Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, was president during a period of violent labor strife in both of his terms and near economic calamity in his second. It the era of robber barons, rampant corruption in business and politics. The United States was still on the gold standard at that time and nearly ran out of reserves before Cleveland struck a deal in which J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds and other financial interests bought American bonds, in several sales, to replenish the gold and stabilize what was then largely a free-market economy.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Davis gives final grades to most of the presidents he writes about, sparing those who died too soon after taking office and Barack Obama, who hasn’t yet served a whole term. Cleveland gets a B, not because he was a visionary or an inspiring leader, but because he was scrupulously honest and because he was the first president since the ill-starred Andrew Johnson to stand up to Congress and restore at least some of the prestige and power the presidency had lost after the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

PEYTON RANDOLPH

Davis provides some context for his discussions of the 44 presidential administrations with an opening section on how the presidency, more or less as we know it, was created. He points out that the title “president of the United States in Congress assembled” was conferred on 14 men — including John Hancock, who held the title twice — before the election of George Washington as the more succinctly named “president of the United States.” The first of these was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who presided over the Continental Congress in 1774. Davis explains that the failures of the Articles of Confederation made it clear to many American leaders that the government needed a strong executive presence, but determining what that executive should consist of was problematic. There was no model to base it on, and many Americans were wary of a strong executive because they feared abuse of power and the possibility of the kind of hereditary succession they had left behind in Great Britain. Indeed, he writes, one of the reasons Washington was a favorite to take on the newly fashioned presidency was that he had no heirs. Davis follows his presidential profiles with a section in which he discusses what the office has become and what should be done with it.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

With its compact chapters and its career highlights and timelines, this book provides a means of scanning the whole sweep of American history from the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 to the present. The book also reminds us of the wide range of personalities who have occupied the presidency during that period, from the brooding and self-sacrificing Lincoln, whose murder plunged even some of his bitterest enemies into despair, to the handsome but hapless Franklin Pierce, whose spineless failure to deal with the crisis that led to the Civil War left him in such disrepute that he was the only former president whose death was not officially mourned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

When I was a kid, a bubble gum company came out with a line of president cards which I guess were intended as the nerd’s alternative to baseball cards. I was into baseball – including the cards – but I was also into history. Also, my Dad owned a grocery store, so I had easy access to whatever the gum companies were peddling.

I recall sitting across from my father at the kitchen table. He held the president cards, arranged in chronological order, and I would try to list them from memory. I can still hear him saying one night when I got stuck somewhere in the latter 19th century: “C’mon! What street does your Aunt Ida live on?” The answer was Garfield Place, as in James A.

It occurred to me at that young age – it was during Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration – that Franklin Pierce had the best-looking face on those cards.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce is the subject of a new little biography – part of a Time Books series on the presidents. This one is written by Michael F. Holt, a history professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on the political life of the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sure enough, Holt points out that Pierce was not only handsome, but charming and warm hearted as well. Unfortunately, those qualities carried a lot more weight in the internal politics of Democratic New Hampshire than they did when spread out over a nation that was on the verge of committing suicide over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories.

In fact, Pierce was nominated for the presidency in 1852 not so much because his party thought he was the Man of the Hour but because the party couldn’t muster a winning vote for any of the three leading candidates – one of whom was not Pierce. He was the original Dark Horse, as far as the presidency of the United States was concerned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce actually showed some skill in managing the foreign affairs of the country, and he directed the Gadsden Purchase, which was the last major territorial acquisition in what is now the contiguous 48 states. But the crisis of the moment had to do with whether the institution of slavery was going to migrate west along with settlers – an argument that many thought had been closed with the Compromise of 1820. Pierce’s attitude on this issue was complex. First of all, he was a strict constructionist, meaning that he didn’t believe the federal government had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of states, including slavery. Pierce was not pro-slavery per se, but he believed that as long as slavery was protected by the Constitution, the federal government had no right to intrude.

JEFFERSON DAVIS

Pierce was also fiercely determined to hold the Union together, and that inspired his  loathing of the abolition movement. He considered abolitionists fanatics whose shenanigans were threatening the solidarity of the nation. And so, Pierce was a New Englander who consistently supported the Southern slave-holding oligarchy.

Another error in Pierce’s thinking, Holt explains, was an attempt to unify the Democratic party – which was suffering regional and philosophical tensions – by doling out federal patronage jobs to men who represented the whole spectrum of opinion. Among other things, he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis – soon to be president of the Confederacy – as Secretary of War, a move that did not endear Pierce to northern interests that despised and feared the southern plantation establishment. Rather than unifying the party, this policy succeeded in irritating just about everybody but those who got lucrative or influential positions.

JANE PIERCE

Pierce made enough mistakes that he was denied re-nomination by his own party. He was gracious in defeat, Holt reports, but he had to have been sorely disappointed. Among those who probably was not disappointed at all was the president’s wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, who had no patience with politics or life in the capital. In fact, when a rider caught up with the Pierces’ carriage to report that Pierce had been nominated for president, Jane fainted dead away. The poor woman was shy and fragile, and she and her husband endured a series of tragedies that unfortunately were not uncommon in the mid 19th century. They had three sons. Two died at very young ages and the third was killed when a railroad car in which the parents and child were riding left the track and overturned. Holt mentions that although Pierce did not approve of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, he wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note of sympathy when one of Lincoln’s sons died in the White House.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Pierce was a heavy drinker – a problem drinker, actually – during much of his life, including the years after Jane died in 1863.

An interesting aspect of Pierce’s life was his compassion for other people – the most prominent of whom may have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Pierce met while a student at Bowdoin College. The men were so close that when Hawthorne sensed that he was dying he asked to spend some of his last days with Pierce. Although Hawthorne could travel only with difficulty, Pierce accommodated him and set off with him on a trip that was to be Hawthorne’s last. Pierce found the writer dead in a room at a hotel where the two men had stopped on their journey. Pierce, who was well off, included Hawthorne’s children in his  own will.

Pierce is consistently ranked as one of the least effective, or “worst,” of American presidents. But life isn’t lived on historians’ templates; it is lived between the ground and the sky in specific times and places and under specific and complex conditions. Calling a man one of the “worst” in any realm might have as much to do with what we expect of him at a comfortable distance than it has to do with the choices and challenges that confronted that man in his  own circumstances. When Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, an angry crowd approached Pierce’s home demanding to know why he wasn’t displaying a flag. Pierce pointed out that his father, Benjamin, had fought in the Revolution, his brothers in the War of 1812, and he himself in the Mexican War: “If the period during which I have served our state and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it.”