Governance without Power
Presidents between Jefferson and Lincoln were no great shakes.
There were twelve of them. I refer to the men as they conducted their
office, not the rest of their lives. Perhaps we should list them all in
order, just once: James Madison 1809-17; James Monroe 1817-25;
John Quincy Adams 1825-29; Andrew Jackson 1829-39; Martin Van
Buren 1837-41; William Henry Harrison 1841; John Tyler 1841-5;
James K. Polk 1845-49; Zachary Taylor 1849-50; Willard
Fillmore 1850-53; Franklin Pierce 1853-7; and James Buchanan 1857-61. The
average term of office was slightly over 4 years.
James Madison and John Quincy Adams looked best on paper, but
performed at low average effectiveness. Several had done remarkable
work before entering the White House; here, besides Madison and
Adams, might be named Van Buren. Others - Taylor, Tyler, Harrison,
Fillmore, and Buchanan amounted to little, one way or the other.
Jackson had done both good and evil before his arrival at the White
House. Most of them as President scarcely outshine the Indian leaders
of that generation such as - Pontiac, Tecumseh, Black Hawk,
Osceola, Minigret, Kanehamata, Sacajaweha.
If you were to compare them scrupulously with their political
opponents, you would be hard put to claim any superiority on their
behalf. The same would be true if you compared them with the
numerous Vice-Presidents and vice-Presidential candidates and
governors who came to the fore. Put another way, it is most unlikely
that American history without them would be significantly changed.
Again an exception might be Jackson; American history might have
profited from his defeat.
James K. Polk, a smart Tennessee lawyer and politician, emulated
well Jackson's wrong positions on money, tariffs, banks, Indians, and
slavery. He outdid his master in aggressive expansionism, favoring the
South and hastening the crisis of North against South. His was the
Oregon boundary settlement with England, a poor deal for the USA.
His was the war with Mexico, coldly and falsely promoted so as to
provoke the struggling Mexican government into defensive actions
that would seem to excuse a declaration of war. His tactics and those
of Mussolini in Ethiopia and Hitler's against Poland a century later
were practically the same. Yet, as with Jackson, numerous historians
have begun to call him one of the several "great Presidents," -
showing how hard up they are to locate great Presidents.
None received the votes of over a third of the adult population.
(Eighteen would be a proper age for voting although it never became
such; I argue thus because by then half the population had lost one or
both parents and was on its own, and had long since begun adult work
and assumed adult responsibilities and vices.) The better Presidents
had no military experience: Madison, J. Q. Adams. The worst were
elected in large part because of their military experience:
Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor. None of them as President initiated or
engineered legislation or great projects of positive value and enduring
Political leaders more glittering than the Presidents were to be found,
even in politics: Henry Clay, who led the House of Representatives,
accomplished domestic peace-keeping compromises, and failed in
several attempts to be elected President; Daniel Webster was also a
great political performer, sometimes to be found on the side of the
angels; Sam Houston, who led Texas' independence struggle, and its
entrance into the Union, but failed in his attempt to preserve it for the
Union; Brigham Young who headed the Mormons
on their way West and ruled them afterwards;
John Fremont, explorer, swashbuckler, and politician; and
Tecumseh, although he could be considered either a
heroic resistance leader or a visionary and futile rebel.
What a shame that in his time or earlier, or even later, the opportunity
was not seized by Congress to invite capable Indians to set up
Territories and apply for Statehood: the Iroquois, the Algonquin, the
Cherokee, the Seminole, the Pueblo, et al - they could all have
founded proper States and fitted them into the Union under the
Constitution well - perhaps with a
Some heroes are recalled differently from one age to another: Admiral
Matthew Perry, who opened up Japan to world trade and modernity,
may not have done the world - or Japan - a great favor;
his ship's guns may have taught the Japanese not to treat ship-wrecked
American sailors badly, but sent them on their way to treating a billion
people cruelly less than a century later.
There were also remarkable men who ended up doing major wrong,
Aaron Burr, for instance, or John Calhoun ( not for his secessionist
views but for defending slavery). Should John Brown, the fanatic
anti-slavery insurrectionist, be included here? He massacred innocent
people as a terrorist object lesson. Americans have little to learn from
Russian anarchists and Middle Eastern religious extremists about
terrorism as a political weapon. Terror was the principal instrument
against African-Americans for centuries. The 1995 Oklahoma City
explosion that brought down the Federal building and killed and
injured hundreds was the work of clean-cut, ex-soldier-boys, "100%
American," native-born, Midwest "heartland,"super-patriots.
Other men may outshine the politicos of the times: poets, artists,
educators, intellectuals, scientists, inventors, and writers. Religious
leaders as well: the Unitarian sect took hold and the Catholics dug in
solidly. It was the age which may be finally best remembered for
producing independent intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and
David Thoreau The development was not sensed alone in and around
Boston, for New York City, Philadelphia and Charleston experienced,
too, the birthing of intellectual and cultural sets.
There were of course a great many unsung heroes, else the nation
would not have budged. I would not debate that the thousand or so
top elite individuals of the country in the various spheres were not
exceeded in competence, moral worth, and contributions to society by
the next fifty thousand individuals as such: probably these were the
backbone of the Republic and its cultural and technological progress:
as Americans say, "Somebody must be doing something right!". They
are remembered almost entirely in monographs, thousands of which
have been published, but all together their sales and readers would not
equal the books sold and read about half a dozen Presidents.
Americans typically created and worshiped heroes of all kinds in every
field. Fame was the veritable life-blood of popular democracy. Yet
here we say that the famous leaders were not at all typically great of
mind or soul or skill. We have to introduce by way of explanation two
ideas or concepts, first that the popular mind needs heroes but only a
few of them; for too many will not be known enough to create the
widespread and even national need for instant mass recognition.
Furthermore, in the kind of country it was, America afforded extensive
liberty to a great many persons, and these accomplished a great deal by
their own right, in their own interest, and displayed much courage,
ambition, improvisation, endurance, organizing ability, whether
occasioned by compensation, promises of favors, or voluntariness. So
that in every field of endeavor there were many, rather than only
several men of consequence, and the country bustled at every corner
with people exploiting the land and each other. Historiography cannot
name and discuss all of these individuals and cannot indeed even
find them and describe them as they entered life,
did their life's work, and departed.
Like others, I speak here and there of utopias.
But the individualism of Americans was also
utopian; nowhere ever did millions of people,
unfortunately almost entirely male,
set themselves up, isolated, with the explicit aim
of living happy alone, free, a law unto oneself.
If they followed Aristotle's dictum --
that to live outside of society,
one had to be a god or a beast --
they saw themselves as gods, not beasts.
So history contributes to the regrettable fallacious conception of the
popular mind, that of the great hero moving large events. Certainly
history can teach the absurdity of the heroic conception of history. It
must do so, to relate what happened and what was said to have
happened. It must not go so far, however, as to destroy the inspiration
afforded by role models. Parents, leaders, gods: they are
psychologically and functionally related; history-writing should provide
a proper framework for their appreciation as it moves along: teach
this, not that, because....
In the end, we may have better citizenry and leaders, ultimate
goals of our historiography.
The picture of America in the early nineteenth century after the War
with England gives us a generation that is acting rather in line with
history thus far: land speculation, Indian riddance, quarrels over
slavery now focusing upon the eligibility of territories for statehood,
raising or lowering tariffs, the fate of a National Bank of the United
States, endless continental expansion, economic booms and busts.
Newer developments entered the picture, making it not so dull.
Catholic Irish immigration on a large scale began; German immigration
renewed, both Catholic and Protestant. With their arrival, a disgusting
nativism rose in strength.
Aggressive warfare stripped newly independent Mexico first of Texas,
then of a huge territory up to and including California. A threefold
revolution in scale, organization, and mechanics occurred in the fields
of agriculture, transportation and industry. A movement to organize
labor into unions began. Japan was coaxed and coerced
into opening up trade with the outside world. The field of
constitutional law moved in the direction of nationalism,
then retreated somewhat under a pro-slavery influence.
Romanticism in thought and literature came out of
Europe and struck Enlightenment ideas hard, contributing to a new
school called Transcendentalism and a variety of original writers. It
combined with the native American constitutionalism to foster a great
many utopian communities. These new developments are all subjects
of chapters to come. Let us here give brief attention to some
An army led by Andrew Jackson, we may recall, had defeated the
Creek Indians prior to his going to New Orleans to set up the defense
against the British there. He had forced the Creeks to give up most of
their land, that was promptly taken over by the slave culture. The
Seminole Indians of Florida, who some claim were separatists from the
Creeks and others claim as a distinctive culture, were clashing with
border Whites in Southern Georgia. Andrew Jackson was called in
again to chastise them, and what was named the Seminole War took
place in 1819. The Americans defeated some Seminoles and their
Afro-American allies, hanged several alleged conspirators against the United
States, and raided all of the Spanish settlements from St. Augustine to
Pensacola. In all of these adventures, Jackson was hyper-aggressive,
behaved with uncontrolled temper, and exceeded his authority.
The Spanish government was upset by his invasion of Florida. The
American government, in this case Secretary of War John Calhoun,
was angered, too, but John Quincy Adams, who was negotiating with
Spain on a boundary line defining the Louisiana purchase, was secretly
pleased to bring pressure to bear upon Spain, tending to make Spain
realize how short-lived must be its remaining tenure in the Floridas.
The formula came about. For assuming claims of $5 millions, the
United States would receive all of Florida. The Louisiana territory was
more clearly defined so as to run along the Sabine River, jump up to
the Red River, and move along there to the Arkansas River; then,
where the Arkansas had its source, at the 42nd parallel of latitude, it
would strike directly to the Pacific Coast at what would be the
Northern boundary of California.
The Seminoles had again to be defeated in a second war of the 1830's
because they refused to cooperate in their own dreadful expulsion to
the trans-Mississippi west.
The Oregon country came into play in these years.
Four countries were involved at first, Russia, Spain, Britain and the USA,
all claiming some or all of the territory. Spain bowed out in 1819
of any claims North of the 42nd parallel. The Russians sought the
coastline as far South as the 51st parallel,
which came within the American definition of the area, and
Secretary of State Adams in 1823 informed the
Russian government of America's disinclination to permit any further
European colonial settlement in America. The Russians withdrew their
challenge, having too many irons in the fire elsewhere. They agreed to
confine themselves to claims above the line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes
North Latitude. That left the British and the Americans arguing over
Oregon, until they agreed to at least temporary joint occupancy.
The idea of America for the Americans was fetching. Within living
memory of the American Declaration of Independence, all of Spanish
America had liberated itself and divided into young nations, except
Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. But in 1823, Ferdinand VII of
Spain was restored to his throne as absolute monarch by the French,
now also under a monarchy and a far cry from the French Revolution.
Reports were circulating that the French hoped also to restore to
Ferdinand his American Empire and thus obtain a measure of
suzerainty for themselves there. Britain's foreign minister, George
Canning, thought he might get America to join him in warning the
Continental European powers against intervention in the Americas.
Secretary of State Adams counseled against joining England in the
maneuver, but suggested America make a pronouncement on its own,
knowing full well that the British were unlikely to stand by if other
powers intervened in Latin America, and furthermore would be likely
to use a joint proclamation to interfere with American
designs on the Southwest.
Thereupon, President Monroe, in his annual address to Congress on
the state of the nation, enunciated what came to be famous as the
Monroe Doctrine. He asserted that the Americas were not to be
subject to further European colonization, that the political systems of
Europe were different enough from the American republican system to
be dangerous to America's peace and safety if introduced in the
Americas, that America would not disturb still-existing
European colonies, and that the United States would stay
out of European wars and domestic arrangements.
The Monroe Doctrine did not set international circles afire.
It carried no force in international law, as the non-legislative
pronouncement of the executive branch of the American government,
and as at most the unilateral position of the United States. It took what
amounted to an imperialist position with regard to the Americas: this
vast hemisphere was to be America's domain. The brazen claim had
roots, gigantically enlarged, in the insularism of England, for
it was tied into the proclamation of isolationism,
America's form of insularism.
The United States did not, moreover, pledge itself to abstain from
forcible intervention in the internal and external affairs of the
Americas. It was in this light that the Monroe Doctrine grew to be of
large importance in the minds of Americans; and millions of American
schoolchildren would thrill to the idea of their country standing as
defender of the Americas against the world that would recapture it;
they were made quite ready to fight in the
name of the Doctrine.