Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Presidents Day Hangover—The Often Hungover Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce has been called the most handsome President.  After that the accolades taper of dramatically

Yesterday, as noted was the Presidents Day  Holiday.  You might have hoped to have escaped the ordeal for another year.   No such luck.  Today we are taking one of the lesser lights of the White House for a spin.  Franklin Pierce usually shows up in the lowest third of best to worst Chief Executives lists, but usually misses the absolute bottom tier out of a combination of obscurity—and likely pity.

Franklin who, you might ask.  Why the 14th President of the United States, that’s who.  The noble son of New Hampshire who was certainly the handsomest man ever elected to that office.

Although born in a log cabin in 1804, Pierce came from reputable Yankee stock.  His father was a Revolutionary War hero and two time Democratic-Republican governor of the Granite State.
Pierce's greatest service to the nation may have been giving cushy patronage jobs to his equally handsome college pal Nathaniel Hawthorne which gave the aspiring author plenty of time to write.  Hawthorne posed for this portrait in 1852, the year in which Pierce's election assured him of the sinecure. 
He was educated at Philips Exeter Academy and then attended Bowdoin College in Maine where he became the lifelong friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  In fact one of Pierce’s most notable accomplishments as President was keeping Hawthorne employed in plumb political appointments thus saving his family from virtual starvation.

After graduation, Pierce studied law in Massachusetts the returned to Concord, New Hampshire to start practicing in 1824.  Gregarious and charming, Pierce won friends and clients and was soon highly successful as a lawyer and rising in Democratic politics.  He served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 1828 to ’33 while his father was Governor and served as Speaker for the last two years.  Then he was elected to the U.S. Congress and at 27 years old was the youngest serving Representative.

During this time he married the beautiful but shy and frail daughter of the former President of Bowdoin College.  He was devoted to the former Federal.  Highly religious, she abhorred her husband’s political career—and his heavy drinking.  She became an outspoken teetotaler.  Despite their differences, they made a striking couple and had three children together.  Their first son, named for his father, died in infancy and their second survived only four years before falling victim to a typhoid epidemic.  Jane regarded these tragedies as punishment for her husband’s political career.

In 1836 the New Hampshire General Court elected Pierce to the U.S. Senate.  He served as a Democrat without much distinction until he gave into his wife’s pleas and resigned in 1842.  He returned to a lucrative private law practice in Concord, and then was appointed Federal Attorney from 1845-47.
Pierce still cut a dashing figure when he posed in his Mexican War Brigadier uniform in 1852.

With the outbreak of the Mexican War, generally unpopular in New England, Pierce enlisted as a Colonel of Volunteers.  Once in Mexico, he was promoted through political clout with the Polk Administration as Brigadier of 1st Brigade, 3rd Division and joined Winfield Scott’s army in time for the Battle of Contreras where he was seriously wounded in the leg in a fall from his horse.  The next day while leading his troops in the Battle of Churubusco he fainted from pain and had to be carried off the field.  After recovery, he resumed command for the rest of the campaign and returned to Concord a middling war hero.

In 1852 the Democrats meeting in Baltimore were deadlocked between four candidates for PresidentStephen A. Douglas, William L. Marcy, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass each with significant regional support.  The party was split on the expansion of slavery, but tied to place itself above “agitation” on the issue.  The platform called for support of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. None of the candidates could win a majority.  On the 35th ballot Pierce’s name was put up as a possible compromise—a Northern man with Southern sympathies and a record as a war hero.  He finally the won nomination on the 49th ballot, probably the most obscure man ever to win a major party nomination.
A Democratic Party poster for the 1852 campaign with Vice Presidential nominee Rufus King of Alabama who would die just a month after the Inauguration.
If the Democrats were in disarray that year, the Whigs were busy dying after the disastrous accidental presidency of John Tyler.  Their great menDaniel Webster and Henry Clay—refused to get out of each other’s way.  Instead the party nominated war hero Winfield Scott.  But Scott was a pompous campaigner and as an anti-slavery Virginian lost the support of the south.  

In the General Election Old Fuss and Feathers was humiliated at the hand of his former subordinate.  Pierce won the Electoral votes 27 of the 31 states, including Scott’s home state of Virginia.

He was, at 48 years old, then the youngest man ever elected to the office.

But tragedy struck before his inauguration.  On his way to Washington the train carrying the President Elect and his family derailed.  His wife was injured and his last surviving son, 11 year old Benjamin was decapitated before his eyes.  The tragedy unhinged both Pierce and his wife, who blamed the death on her husband’s career.

Pierce was devoted to his lovely,  shy, and deeply religous wife Jane who hated her husband's career and his sole surviving son Benjamin.

Once in Washington Jane withdrew from her husband and official duties as hostess.  Pierce spent most of the first year in office alone in a darkened room drinking himself insensible.  When his Vice President, former Alabama Senator Rufus King died just thirty days after inauguration , Pierce’s Party fearing for his sanity and ability to serve his term fretted that he had no clear successor.

Pierce eventually recovered enough to perform his duties, although he continued to drink heavily.  He steadfastly supported the Kansas Nebraska Act, including the hated provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act and generally pursued a policy of conciliation with the South while decrying the “agitation” of Northern Abolitionists.  His closest adviser and political supporter was his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.  

As President Pierce relied heavily on his Secretary of War Jeffeson Davis of Mississippi.  The two men cooresponded privately during the Civil War in lettrers some historians say bordered on treason.  Luckily for Pierce they were not discovered until after his death.

His policies led to a decade of virtual civil war in Bloody Kansas between slave state settlers and their Missouri Border Ruffian allies, and Northern Free Soil settlers supported by Abolitionists.
At every juncture where there was sectional conflict, Pierce sided with the South on the justification that it was necessary to preserve the Union.

By the end of his four year presidency his Party was splintered sectionaly.  Noone wanted a second Pierce term.  The party finally settled on his Secretary of State James Buchanan, another Doughface Democrat—a Northerner with Southern principles.

Pierce retired to New Hampshire to try and win back the affection of his alienated wife.  They traveled abroad.  When they returned home, Pierce began speaking publicly against “abolitionist agitation.”  He was briefly considered for re-nomination in 1860 but declined and the Democrats split among three sectional candidates.

During the war he was an outspoken opponent and critic of the Lincoln Administration and the President’s war aims.  When Secretary of State William Seward accused him of being a member of the seditious secret Knights of the Golden Circle—a militant Copperhead group flirting with allying themselves with the Confederacy in armed rebellion in Ohio and border states.  Pierce demanded he present proof in what became an embarrassing scandal for both men.

At the end of the war when Jefferson Davis’s  papers were captured, very friendly letters from Pierce to the Confederate President were found—so friendly many thought they verged on treason.

Pierce’s wife Jane had died in 1863.  And now his reputation was in tatters.  He was drinking more than ever.  On October 8, 1869 he died in Concord of cirrhosis of the liver.

With no close heirs save a nephew, he divided his estate with generous gifts to several friends, including a provision for the children of old pal Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day Among the Ashes

Finding it hard to get into the spirit of the day, Bunky?  Are pictures of George and Abe, fly-over panoramas of Mt. Rushmore,  your kid’s cherry tree and log cabin school projects magneted to the refrigerator, mattress sales, crazy deals on Korean cars, and all the bunting in the world not doing it for you this year, eh Bunky?  Can’t erase the fetid stench of corruption, betrayal, ignorance, racism, and misogyny emanating from the White House these days make you want to wretch when you hear the word President?  You are not alone, Bunky.
Well, suck it up!  Pull up your big boy/girl panties!  Take a stroll down memory lane with us today to remember what Presidents Day is and some of the gents it honors.  And we will play the drinking game of bests and worsts, knowing the current Occupant has blown all competition for the latter category out of the water.
Presidents Day is a bastard holiday, born of merchant greed on one hand and the despair of parents stuck with small children at home twice in February.
The old Federalists made sure that the nation marked George Washington’s Birthday. It was to be a patriotic celebration emphasizing dignity, decorum, and authority.  In short, it was to celebrate a Founder as demigod, an old revolutionary stripped of rabble and insurrection.  The old Republicans—the Jeffersoniansnot to be confused with the current squatters on than honorable appellationdespised the celebration as monarchical and preferred to swarm the streets carrying  Liberty Caps on polesFrench style—on other occasions.
But Washington deserved the honor.  He invented being President.  He served honestly and honorably, and if he preferred the council of his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton to that of his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, at least he resisted all of the former’s blandishments toward aristocracy and his desire to advance himself as Grand Vizier to the President’s Caliph.  Most importantly Washington earned every accolade he has received by the simple act of voluntarily leaving the job and allowing his successor to peacefully follow him into office.  This precedent setting feat has seldom been matched in post-revolutionary nations.  That Americans take it for granted is astonishing.
Later, most Northern states added Lincoln’s Birthday to their calendars following the Civil War.  It began amid the hagiography of the fallen leader and his elevation to martyr status and continued as a way for the Grand Army of the Republic and the new Republican Party to Wave the Bloody Shirt at home while sticking their collective thumbs in the eyes of their vanquished foes.  Across the old Confederacy Lincoln was reviled as a murderous tyrant.  They preferred to celebrate Jefferson Davis, or better yet the unblemished knight of the Lost Cause, Robert E. Lee.
When Harry S. Truman finally proclaimed Lincoln’s Birthday a Federal holiday, his very Confederate mother, then residing with him and Bess at the White House, cursed her son and never forgave him.
These two guys each had their own holiday in February, which was an incovenient pain in the ass, so they got lumped together along with every one else who had the big job.
So the nation ended up with two holidays in inconvenient February.  If only they had managed to get born at a decently separated interval of months, both might have been able to retain their own celebration.
But, alas, they did not.  And the days fell either inconveniently mid-week or on a weekend.  The former disrupted the work week for employers.  The latter cheated workers of a paid holiday.  Educators hated the disruption to their pedagogy for two holidays.  Parents despaired of rug rats at home.  Merchants yearned for an extended week-end of sales.  So Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decreed Presidents Day, conveniently set down on a Monday between the actual natal anniversaries of the original honorees.  Whoopee! Three Day Weekend!
Better yet, none of the rest of the denizens of the White House need feel slighted—this was going to be their holiday too.  Like a first grade T-ball player spared the sting of losing by playing a “fun game where no one keeps score,” Rutherford B. Hayes could rest easy in the comforting knowledge that he was the peer of the Founder and of the Emancipator.  It also silenced the partisans of Franklin D. Roosevelt on one hand and Ronald Reagan on the other, who dreamed of raising their respective heroes to a loftier pantheon and a place on the national calendar.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson posited that “All men are created equal…  Unitarian Universalists treasure our First Principle—“Respect for the inherit worth and dignity of every person.”  Neither of these are assertions of blanket uniformity of talent, capacity, or wisdom.   Nor has there been equality of ability, opportunity, and circumstance among the occupants of the Presidential chair.  There have been great presidents and there have been failures.  There have been, however, no saints and no pure knaves—until now.
A popular pastime for the holiday is the annual articles listing the best and worse presidents.  By almost universal consensus the two original February honorees are listed one and two, occasionally swapping spots followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, his distant cousin Theodore and either Thomas Jefferson or James Knox Polk (for Manifest Destiny fans.)
The Cheeto in Charge is blowing away the traditional front runners for the Worst President crown including James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
The classic roster of worsts includes of such luminaries as Franklin Pierce, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson,Ulysses S. Grant, and Warren G. Harding.
All of which begs the question of how more recent Presidents fare.  Lately historians are rating Dwight D. Eisenhower as a comer, even breaching the top five on a few lists.
During his occupancy of the office I boldly suggested that George W. Bush may have done the impossible and reached the pinnacle of presidential awfulness.  He left office with few fans even in his own party, who were beginning to hate him not for his unnecessary wars but for being the champion spendthrift of all time.  Even his staunchest supporters have pretty much given up the campaign to paint the Shrub as a misunderstood Lincolnesque figure, boldly pursuing a noble cause while the ignoble people doubted.  It was simply too ludicrous to be maintained.
Does my harsh judgment hold up?  Most of the bottom dwellers on the list got there not for doing  bad, but for being lazy, incompetent, drunk or for not doing anything at all to stave off the long slide to Civil War.  Grant and Harding presided over notoriously corrupt administrations, but neither did lasting harm to the nation or Democracy.

But the legacy of George W. Bush was far more damaging and longer lasting.  He sponsored and presided over unnecessary war, prosecuted that war with stunning incompetence, nearly destroyed the ground forces of the U.S. military, proclaimed a doctrine of preemptive war that left the nation nearly friendless in the world, embraced a policy of torture, systematically attacked the civil liberties of American citizens, subverted the Constitution by asserting  a new doctrine of the unitary executive, turned a budget surplus into a staggering Federal Debt, pursued a policy of showering the rich with tax breaks and relief from regulation that has compounded the class divide in the nation to 19th Century levels, allowed an American city to be virtually destroyed and abandoned it citizens, attacked the “bright lineseparating Church and State, ignored science whenever it drew conclusions that threatened his ideological preconceptions, and ignored Global Warming as a tipping point crisis nears.  And he exited shoveling money at the bankers who caused the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression—and managed to make people think that that was his successor’s idea. That’s a pretty impressive list.  It surely means that he must at least have a spot alongside the “Northern men of Southern Principles—Pierce and Buchanan—whose malfeasance set the stage for the Civil War. 
Despite all of this, and it is a lot, the Shrub never seemed intrinsically evil.  Dim, yes.  Often clueless and way out of his depth.  He generally was trying to do the right thing as he understood it through his religious and political lenses.  He was capable of human empathy and compassion.  He was reasonably honest and did not use the office for personal aggrandizement or his private ATM.  He did not need to be worshiped and adored 24/7.  He expected to be criticized as a public figure, although the criticism must frequently have chaffed and did not launch vendettas against a critical press.  He did not obsess over slights and seek to personally humiliate or destroy his perceived enemies.  And he even had enough self-awareness not to always take himself too seriously and could even joke about his limitations and foibles.
In other words, Bush was the opposite of the narcissistic sociopath sitting in the Oval Office in front of his golden drapes waiting for his ring and ass to be kissed.  On a policy level this has played out with orders and actions meant to enrich himself and his class; harshly punish the poor, the alien, the other of every stripe; and indiscriminately insult the world.  Bad policy in Trump’s case is a direct result of bad character.  That makes Donald J. Trump hands down the worst and most dangerous President ever. 
And what of the most recent former occupant?  It is, of course, too early for the ultimate judgment of history.  Barack Obama certainly came into office at a time of crisis—a boost to any chances to make one’s mark.  Brilliant men and able men have served and been forgotten simply because of the relative tranquility of their terms.  Faced with almost unprecedented economic disaster and two unpopular wars almost impossible to easily and safely withdraw from, Obama soldiered on with dignity and surprising success given the implacable opposition of an ideologically driven opposition in control of Congress.  He even managed to secure the passage of the first major health care reforms since Medicare, however half-hearted and flawed they may be.  And after stunning the world by winning re-election by solid popular and Electoral College majorities he staked out a bold progressive agenda for his second term.  Finally giving up on hopes of compromise with the Republican Congress, he became more daring in shaping the national agenda by executive orders where possible.  
Barack Obama's recently unveiled official portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.  Despite his flaws Obama's star shines more brightly compared to his tarnished and disgraced successor.
But there is a major fly in the ointment—the fatal flaw that overwhelms real achievement and merit.  Lyndon B. Johnson advanced civil rights and social reforms continuing a New Deal legacy but was bogged down in a senseless and unpopular war.  Richard Nixon had foreign policy triumphs like opening relations with China and presided over the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but was undone by his own paranoid criminality.  Woodrow Wilson’s international idealism and reluctant support of women’s suffrage was matched by unprecedented domestic repression of labor and socialists and by the introduction of Jim Crow segregation into the Federal Government.                                                                                                                                 
Desperate for a way to extricate ground troops from Iraq and Iran and to counter the lingering threats of an already largely smashed and dismantled terrorist enemy, Obama embraced the star chamber secrecy and brutality of a secret war established by the Bush administration  and which he had once railed against.  And he came to rely on war-at-a-safe distance drone technology and a policy of targeted assassinations.  Not only have the targets included American citizens, more importantly they have also been blunt instruments with plenty of civilian deaths in collateral damage and by simple mistake.  Every Pakistani village hit earns generations of implacable new enemies sworn to revenge.  Far from restoring, as the world hoped after his first election, American prestige and respect, these policies have further isolated this country and made us the most despised nation in the world.  Further policies of domestic surveillance and coordination of attacks on the Occupy Movement and other social protests threatened freedom of speech and protest in this country.
On the other hand, he may come off looking pretty good by comparison to the petulant would-be dictator who took his job.
At any rate, happy Presidents Day to one and all.  Go and buy a mattress.  Millard Fillmore will thank you.