The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional LegacySubmitted by Crabacado on Thu, 10/10/2013 - 01:51
The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy
by Michael J Gerhardt, 2013
Author and Professor of Constitutional Law at UNC Chapel Hill, Michael Gerhardt takes an in depth look at the constitutional impact that 13 of our least remembered presidents have made on this country.
Based on various criteria, including what and how much is taught about these past presidents in our primary, secondary and post secondary schools and how frequently they are written about by historians and political biographers, he chose these 13 as the least memorable:
Martin Van Buren 1837-1841
William Henry Harrison March-April 1841
John Tyler 1841-1845
Zachary Taylor 1849-1850
Millard Fillmore 1850-1853
Franklin Pierce 1853-1857
Chester Arthur 1881-1885
Grover Cleveland 1885-1889
Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893
Grover Cleveland 1893-1897
William Howard Taft 1909-1913
Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Note that he includes Grover Cleveland twice, since he served two terms surrounding the single term of Benjamin Harrison, so there is a total of 12 presidents, but a total of 13 presidencies.
The introduction is very interesting and there is a lot of good detail about various battles between these presidents and the various congresses of their time.
Instead of writing a flat out review, I'm going to take each chapter and lay out some interesting points from each of these 'least memorable' presidents.
Faced with one of the worst economic downturns in American history, the nation turned to the new president for leadership. As a senator, he had left little mark and seemed to have studiously avoided controversy, but hopes were high. The presidents fellow Democrats quickly rallied to his side, while opposition leaders vowed to do everything they could to ensure that he was a one-term president. To the surprise of many, he promised bold, radical reform. His plan divided Americans and encountered stiff resistance in Congress. But, by largely party-line votes, Congress eventually approved it. Furor over the plan intensified, as its fate became a major issue in the mid term elections. The presidents critics denounced him as an elitist and arrogant and his plan as extreme, unprecedented, dangerous, despotic, un-american and plainly unconstitutional. While one might have expected the conservative Supreme Court to strike down the plan, it did not. Throughout his bid for re-election, his opponents railed against the radicalness of his plan, which they vowed to repeal.
Someone reading this description might think that the new president was Barack Hussein Obama, though it best fits Martin Van Buren. As the second Democrat elected president, Van Buren entered office in the midst of the nations first Great Depression. His bold plan required reorganizing federal depositories and opposing the production of paper money. He based his plan on his conviction that the federal government had very limited powers to address a national economic crisis and had the power to coin money only in the form of gold and silver. His plan did little to ease the nations woes and he became the first president to lose reelection because of the economy.
Martin Van Buren 1837-1841
-was one of America's most famous politicians
-served as Governor of New York
-managed Andrew Jackson's first presidential campaign
-was Jackson's first Secretary of State
-was Jackson's second Vice President
-was, at 54, to date the youngest president
-was the last sitting VP elected to president until GHW Bush in 1989
As the 7th president, Van Buren was eclipsed by the previous six, since they were all members of the group known as the Founding Fathers.
Inheriting a horrible economy, Van Buren pledged to maintain Jackson’s economic policy, mainly the Specie Cicular, which required all payments for public land be paid for in hard currency (gold or silver). He considered that to be the only way to battle a weakening paper currency produced by the States.
On May 10, 1837, NY banks refused to redeem paper money for gold and silver and soon after, there was nationwide panic and a run on the banks. Over one third of the nations banks failed, credit was unavailable, crops failed and the price of cotton fell through the floor. Unemployment skyrocketed, as did prices for food. Riots broke out all around.
Van Buren could have abandoned the Specie Circular and create the Third Bank of the United States and a national paper currency or he could not open the Third Bank and separate the Federal Governments money from States and private industry and let the markets work themselves out. He chose the latter.
He declared “All communities are apt to to look for government for too much!”
At the time, the Whig Party wanted a national paper currency desperately. Whig Senator Daniel Webster from Mass stated “Government must do, what people cannot do for themselves!”.
This battle between 'constitutional Democrats and 'fiat Whigs' lasted a full three years and Van Buren finally caved in and the results were disastrous. Massive expansion of credit and borrowing lead to major inflation. By late 1839, the economic perfect storm arrived. Cotton prices plummeted, British money stopped flowing to the US, half the country's banks stopped converting paper money to gold and silver and 9 States defaulted on their debts and the nations largest bank closed.
On June 30, 1840, congress voted to return back to sound money and Van Buren waited until July 4th to sign the bill, in order to underscore the historic importance of restoring the constitution.
The end result, in an 'I told you so' kind of way, was that Van Buren managed to strengthen the constitutional authority of the president to initiate solutions to federal problems.
Martin Van Buren also managed to increase the presidents control over military and foreign affairs, wresting that power from congress. He maintained Andrew Jackson's policies of using Federal soldiers for Indian removal, forcibly relocating tribes to free up land for white settlers and supposedly to protect Indians from each other.
As a strict constitutionalist with regards to sound money, Van Buren was not so much one when it came to military force and congressional approval. When some Americans joined southern Canadians in their revolt against British rule, one result was the British Navy's sinking of the American steamer Caroline.
The Carolina had shipped supplies to the insurgents, but was docked in Schlosser, NY, where Canadians allied with the British, stole the ship, steered it into Canadian waters, set it on fire and sunk it.
Van Buren declared that no US aid would be provided to citizens arrested in Canada, and that any Americans who aided the Canadian insurgency would be punished, but then realized there was no such law to back his words, so he then asked Congress to pass a Neutrality Law. On March 10th, 1838, Congress did just that and Van Buren quickly signed the bill.
There were other constitutionally, but less significant aspects to Van Buren's presidency and the author concludes that”the best that could be said was that he was a constitutional 'work in progress'.”
William Henry Harrison March 1841
A president for exactly one month and one day.
On March 4th, 1841, 68 year old Harrison delivered an inaugural speech of 8000 words, in icy winds with no hat or coat. He caught a nasty cold which turned into pneumonia and he never recovered. An interesting fact is that, to date, this was, by far, the longest inaugural speech of any president.
Harrison's father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and he was the last president who was born a British subject. Also, at 68 years old, the oldest president ever elected until Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Other firsts for Harrison include the fact that he was the first Whig president and the first president to die in office. Obviously, he also holds the record for shortest presidency in US history.
Harrison, Like George Washington and Andrew Jackson before him, was elected based on image more than anything else. At 68, he was considered an elder statesman and was also a war hero from the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was also the first president to promise to serve only a single term. He is also the only president who's grandson went on to become one. How interesting that Benjamin Harrison also made the list of least memorable presidents. Must be in the genes.
As the Whig Party leader, in the 5 months between his election and his death, Harrison showed signs that he was power hungry and was at odds with the Whig concept of the president as a weak figurehead. The Whig's believed that Congress held the power, not the president. (I'm gaining more fondness of the Whigs as I write this!)
The Whig party was primarily committed to two things: The first was opposition to Jackson's and Van Buren's usurpation’s of legislative authority and the second was the legislative supremacy, particularly in domestic policy making. The Whigs felt the presidents job was to follow the Congress' lead and implement the laws it enacted.
Harrison was also a walking contradiction, though. In his inaugural address he stated, “the presidential veto should only be used to protect the constitution from violation and to protect the people from hasty legislation where their will has probably been disregarded or not well understood...” and “...it is preposterous to assume that the president could better understand the wants and wishes of the people better than their own immediate representatives.”
In these early years of the Republic, a common controversy of incoming presidents was the 'rotation system', or 'spoils system', where the president replaced cabinet officials and other senior people with ones of his own choosing, regardless of whether they had been doing a good job or not. Jackson and Van Buren rewarded their loyal friends and supporters with appointments, while in contrast, John Quincy Adams kept all the hostile appointee's he inherited.
The Whigs were opposed to the spoils system, but Harrison chose the middle ground as he replaced some and kept others.
John Tyler 1841-1845
If Tyler had done nothing more than take the oath of office as president, his place in constitutional history would be secured. He was the first vice president to ascend to the presidency due to the death of the president. These were uncharted waters at the time.
Senator Henry Clay was a staunch supporter of a US National Bank and federal power over money supply. He wasted no time in writing to Tyler after Harrison's death, to plead his case for a new National Bank charter.
When Tyler's response was less that what Clay expected, he asked for a face to face meeting. It did not go well.
Clay demanded that Tyler recharter the National Bank. Tyler said “no.” as he felt there were other priorities. Clay kept pressing and would not take no for an answer. The conversation ended in a shouting match and Clay was dismissed from the White House.
John Tyler had some epicly historic battles with Congress in his nearly 4 year term and was the first president denied by his party to run for a second term and after he left office, was thrown out of the Whig party.
At this point, he held 2 records: The most Cabinet nominations rejected by the Senate and the most Supreme Court nominations rejected by the Senate.
Tyler upset the Whigs by declaring himself 'president', rather than 'acting president' after Harrison's death and since the situation was unprecedented, there was a lot of confusion and debate over the constitutional legality of his presidency. Obviously he won and the precedent remains in place today.
Henry Clay, having been banished to the Senate after his verbal brawl with John Tyler, continued to do battle at every turn, especially when it came to the US National Bank. Tyler simply felt that putting a Federal Bank on State property violated States Rights. Clay and his cohorts in Congress sent a bill Chartering the Third National Bank to Tyler. Tyler waited a full ten days, then vetoed the bill. The Whigs called it 'treason!'.
The Whig controlled Congress sent another Bank charter bill. Tyler waited only six days, this time and vetoed it again! Within 2 days after the second veto, Tyler's entire Cabinet, save one, resigned in protest.
Approaching July 1st, 1842, with the Compromise Tariff Act of 1833 about to be scaled down to minimal duties, and the US Treasury being virtually empty, it was possible that the US Federal government might not be able to collect ANY revenue legally after the 1st of July. (oh what epic times that must have been!)
Congress passed a temporary extension called the 'Little Tariff Bill' which extended duties for one month until August 1st and sent it to the White House for signing. John Tyler VETOED that one too!
The next day, Representative John Quincy Adams moved that the House refer Tyler's veto to a select committee charged with investigating the propriety of impeaching Tyler. This eventually lead to the motion for the constitutional amendment that allows the house to over-ride a presidential veto by two-thirds majority. This time, the constitutional amendment fell short of the required votes.
There's a lot more interesting stuff about Tyler in this chapter, however, one final note: in 1861, John Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but died before taking office.
Zachary Taylor 1849-1850
Taylor had never been involved in politics before spending 15 months in office as president. Previously he was a General in the Mexican War. He described himself as a 'true republican who put the public interest ahead of any party principles.”
Perhaps the biggest memory of Taylor's presidency is a scandal involving his Attorney General, who authorized the Treasury to pay in full, a judgment against the United States dating back to 1773. When it was discovered that the interest on this judgment was five times the principal owed and that fully half the interest and half the principal was to be paid to his War Secretary, George Crawford, for legal services rendered, all hell broke loose.
Taylor considered firing his entire Cabinet to remove any appearance of corruption in his administration.
Aside from that, Zachary Taylor provided significant influence on three important players in American history; Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Jefferson Davis. All three learned valuable lessons from Taylor on military strategy and the presidents responsibility during time of war.
The Mexican war provided the principle testing grounds for many men who became military leaders for both the Union and the Confederacy. In Grant's memoirs, he said he had grown to admire Taylor's leadership style.
Jefferson Davis served under Taylor in the 'Black Hawk War' and they remained close friends. Taylor told Davis that he sympathized with slave holders and felt that federal interference with slavery would likely tear the Union apart, but he took a hard-line, anti-slavery stance with regards to admitting California and New Mexico into the Union.
Zachary Taylor and William Henry Harrison had much in common as they both were General's, both were successful Whig candidates for president and both had to fight off the powerful Senator, Henry Clay for control of the Whig party and their own presidential power...and both died in office.
Millard Fillmore 1850-1853
No president pleased Senator Henry Clay more than Millard Fillmore. Fillmore had supported Clay's unsuccessful bids for the presidency. Clay died before Fillmore won the Whig Party nomination, but he publicly endorsed him during the primary, the only time he endorsed anyone before the party's convention.
Yet, as president, Fillmore's constitutional stands destroyed the Whig's.
Fillmore is best known for signing the 'Compromise Act' of 1850, which was not one bill, but a combination of five separate bills into one act, which were debated separately, raised different constitutional issues and were signed into law over a span of 11 days.
These included admitting California as a new state, outlawing the slave trade in Washington, DC, annexing New Mexico and Utah as Territories and enacting the 'Fugitive Slave Act'.
During his presidency, 9 northern states enacted 'personal liberty laws', which forbade state officials, including judges, to participate in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. (nullification at its finest!) and prohibited the use of state jails to incarcerate any fugitive slaves.
Interestingly, the author notes, “the same arguments have been used recently by states to refuse compliance with respect to the Affordable HealthCare Act.”
I will note here that this chapter and the previous one or two chapters really show how the slavery and states right's issues had been boiling up for quite some time, long before the Civil War actually began.
Fillmore also defended the principle of rotation in office, or 'spoils', and became the first president to accept the resignation of the entire Cabinet on his second day in office. He then used his appointment power to reward those who had supported the 'Compromise Act' of 1850.
Fillmore was the last president to commit to serving only a single term as president.
Franklin Pierce 1853-1857
If you drive west, heading out of Topeka, Kansas, you will cross 15 streets that are named, chronologically, for the antebellum presidents.
One name is missing. For some reason, the state legislature decided to skip Pierce, instead they named the 14th street after Henry Clay. They deliberately decided to ignore Franklin Pierce.
Many people dismiss Pierce as one of the most inept presidents. (If this is the case and they remain consistent, then we should expect never to see a street in Topeka named after George W Bush or Barack Obama...we'll see).
When Pierce's wife was told that he had been nominated for president on the Democratic ticket, she fainted, LOL!
Franklin Pierce's presidential expectations were low, but they fell even further, when just 2 months before his inauguration, the train he and his family were riding on derailed, fell down an embankment and his only son, Bennie, tragically died.
Franklin and his wife never recovered from the tragedy.
Once in office, he quickly fell out of favor with the Democratic Party and he went on to become the only president who won, (barely), the popular vote, who then was denied access to the ticket for a reelection bid.
He was adamantly pro-slavery and among other reasons, his policies and political approach so fractured the Democrat Party, that this went on to inadvertently help the rise of the Republican Party.
To his credit, Pierce was a strict constitutionalist and in his inaugural address, he stated that “the Federal government should confine itself to the exercise of powers clearly granted by the constitution” and that “involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States, is recognized by the constitution.”
Regarding Federal aid for construction of a trans continental railroad, he asked, “Is it not the better rule to leave all these works to private enterprise...?”
He vetoed 9 laws, yet 5 of them were over-ruled by Congress. His best known veto involved a bill to set aside 12 million acres of public land to fund institutions for the mentally ill. Congress could not amass enough votes to over-ride this veto.
Pierce had one great success and one great failure as president. His success was the signing of the Gadsen Treaty, named after James Gadsen, of South Carolina, where the US purchased over 45,000 square miles of land from Mexico for $10,000,000 in 1854.
His great failure was not succeeding in acquiring Cuba from Spain. A great effort was put forth to acquire Cuba and involved the 'Ostend Manifesto', which argued that if Spain would not sell Cuba for $120 million dollars, the US “shall be justified in wresting it...if we possess the power.”
The manifesto was leaked to the New York Herald, which published it and completely undermined the entire project.
The big stain on Pierce's legacy is the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially was an epic conundrum from the get go. It was all about States Rights regarding slavery and allowing the citizens to vote. Thousands of Missouri citizens moved to Kansas just so they could vote for the continuing slavery, then after the vote, moved back to Missouri. There was widespread violence as people caught on to the scheme and many deaths resulted. The territory of Kansas asked the Federal government for help, but Pierce did virtually nothing.
The violence spread to the floor of the Senate, where, on May 19th and 20th, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave the most important speech of his life. He spoke of the conspiracy to force slavery on the citizens of Kansas and threw insults at James Madison, Stephen Douglas and SC Senator Andrew Pickens Butler. Two days later, Congressman Butler, a cousin of Pickens approached Sumner on the Senate floor and beat him unconscious with his walking stick. The rest of the Senate looked on but did nothing to help the Senator lying on the floor, bleeding and near death. He was beaten so badly, he was absent from the Senate for almost 3 years, yet was reelected in 1859.
Chester Arthur 1881-1885
Chester Arthur did more to destroy his own legacy than anyone else. He didn't need any help. On the day before he died, he burned his entire collection of memoirs and personal papers. There were important episodes and events during his 4 years in office, yet no record exists of them.
He was James Garfield's running mate in 1880 and previously, the Collector for the Port of New York, where a substantial portion of Federal revenue originated. He was dismissed from that position in 1878, by President Hayes for corruption, in cahoots with Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.
Arthur's dismissal had the most remarkable unintended consequence of any in American history: it endeared him to Conkling's powerful wing of the Republican Party. They forced Arthur on Garfield and as evidence of James Garfield's disgust with his Vice President, Arthur was shunned from all aspects of the administration, that is, until Garfield was dead 6 months later and Arthur ascended to the highest office.
There is little doubt that Chester Arthur was one of the most corrupt and immoral presidents in history, although there is one particularly interesting veto that he cast during his first year in office. On April 24th, 1882, he vetoed the 'Chinese Exclusion Bill', which barred Chinese workers from entering the US for 20 years and denied citizenship for existing Chinese immigrants.
Grover Cleveland 1885-1889
Grover Cleveland is the only president to have served two non consecutive terms. When he won in 1884, he was the first Democrat in office since James Buchanan in 1856 and he was the only Democratic president in the entire second half of the 19th century.
He was a terrible orator and a memorable quote from him is almost impossible to find, says the author.
In a twist of extreme irony, likely the worst president in history, Woodrow Wilson says of Cleveland, “He was the only significant president between 1865 and 1898.”
Cleveland believed the job of the president was to enforce the law and not tell Congress how to do its job. In January of 1886, Cleveland signed the Presidential Succession Act and a year later, signed the Electoral Count Act, which is still the principal law governing disputes arising in presidential elections. Its interpretation was at the center of the Bush-Gore dispute in the past decade.
He also signed the Interstate Commerce Act into law, regarding State's lacking authority to regulate interstate railroads and which is tied to the Commerce Clause empowering Congress to create federal agencies over matters relating to the national economy.
Possibly the biggest impact Cleveland made during his first term, was his appointment of two Supreme Court justices. They helped shape the era where sharp limitations were put on federal and state governments with regards to interfering with private enterprise.
Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893
It is easy to understand why most people know almost nothing about Benjamin Harrison. He was uncharismatic and had trouble connecting with the general public. He never won a direct election, was twice defeated for Governor of Indiana and lost the popular vote both times he ran for president. People who worked close with him say he lacked imagination, had no personal magnetism and was 'icy'.
Yet Historian, Henry Adams, who personally disliked Harrison, says he was one of the best presidents. Why? Because in his single term, he signed landmark Commerce Clause legislation, including the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
Harrison was quite proud of how he achieved the presidency without having to sell his soul. Before his inauguration, he said, “I was nominated without the smallest promise of any sort relating to federal appointments and I am now absolutely without any promise or entanglement of any sort.”
(I can't honestly say that any president in my lifetime could say the same thing truthfully)
In his inaugural address, Harrison stated the the federal government needed to play a bigger role in monitoring the practices of big business. He said, “When organized, as they often are, to crush out all healthy competition and to monopolize the production or sale of an article of commerce and general necessity, they are dangerous conspiracies against the public good, and should be made the subject of prohibitory and even penal legislation.” In response, the Senate introduced several antitrust bills due to popular demand.
In the 8 years that Harrison spent as an ex president before he died, he published two books on constitutional law. Both are forgotten.
Grover Cleveland Pt2 1893-1897
If you recall, during his first term, beginning eight years prior, Cleveland did not meddle with Congress and largely remained a silent president. This was not the case during his second term.
He made a point of pushing his agenda towards Congress, rather than simply following their lead. He consolidated presidential power over appointments, removals, vetoes, foreign affairs, lawmaking, forming public opinion and protecting federal operations from private interference.
In his second inaugural address, he acknowledged the severe degradation of the nations currency, “the danger of depreciation in the purchasing power of the wages paid to toil”, and, “our present embarrassing situation as related” to deteriorating economic conditions.
Over the next year, the economic devastation was unprecedented: Over 15,000 businesses and more than 500 banks closed. Nearly 20% of the nations factory workers lost their jobs, farm prices dropped through the floor and the nations gold supply shrunk severely.
He proposed that Congress repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which Harrison had signed into law, requiring the federal government to purchase silver using paper notes backed by gold and silver. The repeal act passed and was signed into law on September 30th, 1893.
After leaving office, Cleveland described the circumstances during his repeal push as an emergency of growing apprehension among the masses concerning the governments competency to continue gold and silver redemption. His decision to sell gold bonds to help save the economy had not been approved by Congress and is something he never would have considered during his first term, yet he set a presidential precedent of power during an economic crisis.
During his second term, he also became the first president to enact a personal income tax of 2% on income above $4000 and also a corporate tax on all income above operating expenses and costs.
(Talk about a 180 from term one to term two!)
In 1895, the Supreme Court struck down the personal income tax as unconstitutional, (Pollack vs. Farmers Loan & Trust Company)
On January 20th, 1887, the Senate ratified a treaty with the Hawaiian Kingdom, allowing the US to build a Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.
Cleveland left the presidency in 1897, but not before leaving the Democratic Party and endorsing a third party candidate who supported the Gold Standard
William Howard Taft 1909-1913
Even Taft himself, said he had forgotten his own presidency! Taft admitted to friends that he never really wanted to be president. His life long ambition was to be a member of the Supreme Court.
During his reelection bid for a second term in 1912, Taft took the most thorough beating of any incumbent president in history. He only won two States and a total of eight electoral college votes.
Taft is considered the last president who considered the office to be subservient to Congress. In fact, William Howard Taft saw the presidency in exactly the opposite way that Teddy Roosevelt did. Roosevelt believed the president had the authority to do whatever he wished to accomplish as long as it was not expressly forbidden by the constitution.
In Taft's inaugural address, he maintained that each branch of the federal government had strict and limited powers. Taft put his Attorney General in charge of issues such as antitrust enforcement, where presidents after him engaged in antitrust enforcement directly.
In his last year in office, Taft requested that Congress enact legislation establishing a national budget. He was the original creator of the system where the president submits a budget to Congress and then they negotiate back and forth until an agreement is reached. Perhaps that may be the biggest part of his legacy.
He also signed into law, the nations second campaign finance regulations, the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, which restricted how much money corporations could donate to political campaigns. In 1911, it was extended to include Senate races and Primaries.
Also, on July 12th, 1909, at the behest of Taft, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution proposing the 16th amendment to the constitution and on February 25th, 1913, Secretary of State Knox certified that the 16th amendment had been ratified...and we the people have been thoroughly screwed ever since.
Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929
No comment better captures Calvin Coolidge's presidency than Dorothy Parker's cutting remark upon hearing of Coolidge's death: “How could they tell?'
His pride in championing inaction as a principled stance made him an easy target for opponents, particularly as the prosperity the nation enjoyed under his presidency lapsed into the great depression
Coolidge advanced a philosophy of governance that has been commonly associated with conservative constitutionalists ever since. He was the first president to champion the need for lower taxes, less government and more freedom.
Ronald Reagan believed that Calvin Coolidge was one of the most under-rated presidents in American history. He said, “I am an admirer of 'Silent Cal' and believe he has been badly mistreated by history.” continuing, “He served his country well and accomplished much....He cut taxes four times. We had probably the greatest growth and prosperity we've ever known and I have taken heed of that, because, if he did nothing, then maybe that's the answer for the federal government.”
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
I'm not going to cover the Jimmy Carter chapter because even until a few years ago, we all joked about what a failure president he was. All I have to say is in light of the current administration and the previous one, Jimmy Carter is looking like a damn fine president right now and I'm glad to see that he is still going out there with his wife and helping build Habitat for Humanity homes. Keep it up Jimmy!-