The Forgotten Presidents: Did They Do Anything We Should Remember?

We all know about Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Reagan, and others who are in living memory. However, numerous historians have questioned the strong emphasis on presidents in schools and for good reason. Many paled in comparison to other political figures of the time in their importance. An oft-cited example is William Henry Harrison, who was president for the span of an entire month before succumbing to pneumonia. An example of a politician who was undoubtedly more important to American history than numerous presidents was Kentucky’s Henry Clay, who was instrumental in crafting compromises to hold the Union together. However, perhaps these presidents did things in their lives that were more significant than be president. Some had achievements outside of their office that were more significant than their presidencies.

Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), Served: 1837-41.

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Before becoming president, Van Buren had been a most skillful politician. He had created the first significant political machine, known as the Albany Regency in his home state of New York (Silbey). This machine got him elected to the Senate, and eventually he would use his political skill to ally himself with Andrew Jackson, gaining his confidence as well as the position of Vice President for his second term. Elected in 1836 essentially to be Andrew Jackson’s third term, the Panic of 1837 and the severe recession that followed ultimately precluded his reelection.

Van Buren proposed the creation of an independent Treasury, but was unable to secure its passage until 1840, as his presidency was coming to an end. He also completed the Trail of Tears started under Jackson. He did, after all, run on the promise of continuing Jackson’s policies. After his loss to William Henry Harrison, he attempted to run again in 1844. His opposition to the annexation of Texas, however, killed his chances. The Democratic nomination went to the far less forgettable James K. Polk instead. In 1848, he ran as the candidate of the Free Soil Party, getting no electoral votes. Although he remained a loyal Democrat, endorsing the Democrat each election, he was staunchly anti-slavery and publicly supported Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the union.

What should be remembered? His mastery of politics, which did not translate into a successful presidency! His inability to pass legislation to deal with the recession.

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), Served: 1841

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Although he died after one month, his significance in American history was as a bonafide war hero in the Battle of Tippecanoe as well as serving in both houses of Congress. He also negotiated with Lewis Cass the Treaty of Greenville in 1814. The next year, he negotiated the Treaty of Spring Wells. Both these Indian treaties increased the amount of land under US control. His fame led the Whig Party to seek him as a candidate for president. After a failed bid in 1836, they recruited him again in 1840, with him prevailing. However, the Whigs were unlucky, as that was that for Harrison!

What should be remembered? His military career.

John Tyler (1790-1862), Served: 1841-45

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After Harrison’s death, it would be Tyler who would serve out the remainder of his term. Although nominally a Whig, he was a Whig with a very small “w”. He would proceed to veto almost the entire Whig agenda, including reestablishment of the Second Bank of the United States. Most of his cabinet resigned and his own party derided him as His Accidency, expelling him. Notably, he was the first president to have a veto overridden. Most of his successes as president were in foreign policy. It was Tyler who opened trade relations with China and brought Hawaii under the Monroe Doctrine (Freehling). He also signed the bill annexing Texas. At the start of the Civil War, Tyler sided with the Confederacy and was elected to the Confederate Congress shortly before his death. Notably, as of 2018, two of his grandchildren are still alive!

What should be remembered? Admission of Texas, an example of what would happen if a president constantly disagreed with his own party.

Zachary Taylor (1782-1850), Served: 1849-50

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Of the four people the Whigs ran for president from 1840 to 1852, three were generals. Taylor was no exception, being at the time the most popular man in the United States for his victories in the Mexican-American War. Elected in 1848, Taylor was tasked with managing the status of the new territories, which ones were to be slave and free states. His first plan, popular sovereignty for California and New Mexico, would have tipped the balance in favor of free states and was rejected. He notably came down hard on any talk of secession and threatened anyone who plotted or attempted secession with the gallows. Although he owned slaves, Taylor did not favor the expansion of slavery. His greatest accomplishment was the ratification of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which shared U.S. and British control over a proposed Nicaragua Canal, which would eventually become the Panama Canal. However, the Whigs once again were unlucky. In 1850, their second elected president died of a stomach illness, reportedly after drinking iced milk and eating cherries.

What should be remembered? His strong stand against secession and against the expansion of slavery, Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), Served: 1850-1853

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A career politician who started as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, Fillmore as a Whig Congressman had opposed the Mexican-American War, citing the growth of slavery’s influence. This was about as impressive as he was on opposing slavery. Hailing from New York, he was critical for Taylor’s win in the state, and thus the election. Fillmore, although publicly anti-slavery, was more this in terms of restricting the slave power as opposed to its abolition. Thus, he thought the Fugitive Slave Act to be a good part of the Compromise of 1850, which made it the federal government’s responsibility to capture runaway slaves. This measure was heavily resisted in free states. Possibly Fillmore’s greatest achievement aside from California entering the Union was the ordering of the successful Perry Expedition, which had the purpose and impact of forcing an end to Japan’s 220-year period of isolation from world affairs. In 1852, his party, unhappy with his record on slavery, booted him in favor of General Winfield Scott. Scott proceeded to badly lose the election due to the conflicted nature of the dying Whig Party on slavery. In 1856, Fillmore was nominated to be the candidate of the American (Know Nothing) Party without his consent and would only win the state of Maryland. The last Whig president was not a fan of Lincoln, and voted against him both times while supporting the Union. The last president of a dead party, Fillmore was forgotten even in his own lifetime.

What should be remembered? Nothing! Only kidding, Fugitive Slave Act, admission of California, and Commodore Perry’s expedition.

Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), Served: 1853-1857

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Having the benefit of running against a hopelessly conflicted Whig Party which had a moderately pro-slavery platform while running an anti-slavery candidate in Winfield Scott, Pierce won all but four states in the 1852 election. This was the most decisive victory and seemed to give the Democrats a mandate. Pierce’s goal as president was to resolve the conflict between Free and Slave states, a goal for which he failed miserably. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which by mandating popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska repealed the Missouri Compromise, which barred slavery north of the latitude 36°30´. This resulted in “Bleeding Kansas”, in which bloody conflicts in the state of Kansas occurred between out of state pro and anti-slavery men, both groups seeking to tilt the vote their way. This act also resulted in the death of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Party. If “Bleeding Kansas” wasn’t bad enough, the Ostend Manifesto inflamed sectional tensions further, as Pierre Soule, U.S. minister to Spain, suggested the US invade Cuba if Spain wouldn’t sell to them. This would have been a win for slave states. Under Pierce, the Gadsden Purchase, which bought 55,000 square miles for $15 million of Southern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico. He was the first of the two “doughface” presidents, Northern politicians who favored Southern interests. Pierce was thought of so badly that the Democrats declined to renominate him, favoring James Buchanan. Speaking of Buchanan…

What should be remembered? Kansas-Nebraska Act, Gadsden Purchase.

James Buchanan (1791-1868), Served: 1857-1861

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Regarded as more ideal than Franklin Pierce by the Democrats, this assessment would prove oh so wrong. Buchanan stands as the only president under which the United States lost states. Although officially he acted as a compromiser, Buchanan actually tended to side with slave states on the subject. He secretly lobbied the Supreme Court to rule against Dred Scott in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), now regarded widely as the worst Supreme Court decision, as it ruled that blacks were not citizens, disallowed the federal government from freeing slaves in federal territories, and it actually expanded slavery’s reach by repealing the Missouri Compromise. Buchanan also tried to push the Lecompton Constitution, which made Kansas a slave state and prohibited free blacks from living there. The first vote on the matter had so many fraudulent ballots that the territorial governor urged Buchanan to reject the results, but he didn’t and got it passed by the Senate. In the House, however, an alternative measure was passed that mandated a new vote, in which the Lecompton Constitution got crushed. Buchanan’s public belief that secession was illegal but the federal government had no authority to stop it was pathetic, especially when you consider that Presidents Jackson and Taylor had no such concerns about secession.

What should be remembered? His role in the Dred Scott decision, Lecompton Constitution, inability to stop states from seceding.

The Custodial Presidents

Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893)

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Rutherford B. Hayes, if he is remembered at all, he is remembered for the infamous deal made to make him president. This deal gave him the presidency in exchange for a number of concessions, including ending Reconstruction and appointing a Southern Democrat to his cabinet. However, Hayes was considering doing so anyway, and Democrat Tilden would have undoubtedly done so had he won the election. Hayes was not particularly notable although he did take some definitive stands. First, he would resume the fight to ensure that Southern blacks could vote by vetoing a bill that would prohibit federal troops at polls. Second, he vetoed the Bland-Allison Act, as he favored a return to the gold standard instead of bimetallism. Third, Hayes also tried to reform federal patronage, and as part of this effort, fired Chester A. Arthur, the Collector of the Port of New York. Fourth, Hayes also vetoed a bill excluding Chinese immigrants, preferring to work with China to achieve immigration limits.

What should be remembered? End of Reconstruction, firing a future president.

James Garfield (1831-1881)

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Before serving as president, Garfield served in the Union Army as Chief of Staff to General William Rosecrans. In December 1863, Garfield resigned to take his seat in the House of Representatives. In Congress, he stood as one of the most radical Republicans. Eventually he would focus on other issues, including favoring hard money and opposing greenback currency. Garfield also opposed farm cooperative programs, considering them “communism in disguise” (Doenecke) His views on labor and federal relief projects would find him in good company with the present-day GOP. Garfield was elected president after a very close and spirited campaign against Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield served a very brief time before his assassination by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged office-seeker. Before then, he had appointed his cabinet, which included James G. Blaine as Secretary of State.

What should be remembered? His career in Congress, his death.

Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886), Served: 1881-1885

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Chester Arthur completely defied expectations as president. Arthur had been a supporter of the “stalwart” faction of the GOP, but changed course and sought reform. In 1883, he signed into law the Pendleton Act, vetoed a Rivers and Harbors Act for excessive spending, and strengthened the U.S. Navy. However, he failed to cure the budget surplus, an unthinkable problem in modern times. In spite of this turnaround of reputation, Arthur was in no position to run for president in 1884. By 1882, he had developed Bright’s Disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys that was incurable at the time and would slowly poison him to death (University of Arizona). The true state of his health was kept under wraps and he only made a minor attempt to campaign for the nomination, which went to James G. Blaine.

What should be remembered? He was a political hack who became principled upon becoming president, possibly due to his realization of his mortality.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), Served: 1885-1889, 1893-1897

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By 1884 the Democrats had twice failed to win the presidency despite running solid candidates. This time, they were determined to win. Grover Cleveland had developed a reputation for clean, honest governance as Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York. He also had the good fortune of running against James G. Blaine. The Republican Blaine had a number of controversial business deals which led his detractors to claim he was corrupt, which included a group of reformer Republicans known as “mugwumps”. However, Blaine’s campaign had a counteroffensive, pointing to Cleveland’s illegitimate child. Cleveland took financial responsibility, as all other potential partners of the woman in question were married at the time. Ultimately, Cleveland’s personal baggage was regarded as lesser than Blaine’s ethics baggage and Cleveland was elected.

Cleveland issued the most vetoes of any president. About half of these were on individual pensions claimed by Union veterans who had been unable to obtain them through the Pensions Bureau. Hundreds of these claims were fraudulent. He vetoed the Texas Seed Bill in 1887, which provided a small sum of $10,000 for the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase seeds to distribute to Texans (Folsom, 2004). Although Cleveland stood strongly against the use of the federal government on seed legislation, he did sign into law the Interstate Commerce Act. This law aimed to regulate railroads by requiring publication of shipping rates and required that they be “reasonable and just”. By vetoing pension bills, Cleveland had attracted the enmity of the lobbying group Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had a candidate in Republican Benjamin Harrison, who pledged to sign an extensive disability law for veterans if elected. Although Cleveland won the popular vote, he lost the electoral vote and Harrison won. However, four years later, the public mood had turned against Harrison and the Republicans, and Cleveland was again elected president. This time, he aimed to fight a nasty recession, and blamed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 for the draining of gold reserves. The gold standard proponent Cleveland signed a bill repealing the law. He also opposed imperialism and resisted Hawaii’s annexation, but like his fight against veterans pensions, he only managed to delay it. By 1896, Cleveland had fallen out of popularity with his party, as they shifted to the left in their support for free silver advocate William Jennings Bryan.

What should be remembered? Cleveland fought prevailing trends in governance, fought against bogus pension bills, supported the gold standard, was highly principled, and stood against imperialism.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), Served: 1889-1893

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A union veteran and Indiana Senator, Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, was elected to the presidency in 1888. The Harrison years were categorized largely on the domestic front by balancing out Republican Party interests. Easterners wanted a high tariff and Westerners wanted a currency that gave backing to silver. Harrison and the Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, were eager to accommodate. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed in exchange for the McKinley Tariff. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act resulted in a speed up of production of silver while draining the treasury of gold while the McKinley Tariff would raise the tariff rates by an average of 49.5% (Spetter).

Harrison would also support the Blair Education Bill and the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, the former provided federal aid to education to combat illiteracy in the South, and the latter was to ensure blacks could vote in the South. Both would not reach the president’s desk. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was also signed, which aimed to combat monopolies. However, this law would not be vigorously enforced until Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

On foreign policy, he sought to expand American influence abroad, including the annexation of Hawaii, expanded the U.S. Navy, and negotiated numerous reciprocal trade agreements. Harrison’s foreign policy would inspire Theodore Roosevelt to engage in “Big Stick” diplomacy (Spetter). Ultimately, the time in the sun for Harrison and the Republicans was short. The “Billion Dollar Congress” run by Reed had attracted much opposition, and by 1893, the Republicans had lost control of both the Executive and Congress.

What should be remembered? Harrison was very ambitious, but not all of his ambitions succeeded. Fought for civil rights.

William Howard Taft (1858-1930)

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If Taft is remembered for one thing by the layman, it is the fact that he was fat. Taft was Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor, and he easily won the presidency in the 1908 election on the basis of Roosevelt’s popularity. Taft sought a different approach to governance than Roosevelt. While Roosevelt’s style was personal and larger-than-life, Taft was more subdued, legalistic, and conservative. Taft sought to expand U.S. reach in international markets further through “Dollar Diplomacy”, which was crafted by him and Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and involved the use of U.S. troops for economic diplomacy, including employing them to smash a revolt against Nicaragua’s pro-American government (Arnold). This policy resulted in increased ill will towards the United States. One of the first orders of business on the domestic front during Taft’s presidency was the issue of tariffs. Tariffs had been at their all-time high since the 1897 Dingley Tariff, and reformers wanted to see lower rates. Taft ultimately worked with ultra-conservative House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.), Rep. Sereno Payne (R-N.Y.), and Sen. Nelson Aldrich (R-R.I.) to produce tariff reduction legislation. Although many rates were reduced, numerous others went up, resulting in only about a 5% average drop in tariff rates, which caused progressive Republicans to drop their support of the president (Encyclopedia Britannica). This, combined with the Ballenger-Pinchot controversy over conservation led to Theodore Roosevelt challenging his successor for the Republican nomination in 1912. When this failed, Roosevelt ran as the “Bull Moose” candidate, splitting the Republican vote and resulting in the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. However, Taft’s role in American life wasn’t over, not by a long shot. In 1921, President Harding nominated him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he was confirmed. Taft’s mind was better fit for this branch of government, and he enjoyed it much more, wishing to be remembered as a chief justice rather than a president, and history is much kinder to his presiding over the court than his time in the White House.

What should be remembered? The tariff law, the split of the GOP.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923)

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Aside from not usually being remembered by the average American, he is often rated spectacularly low on presidential rankings, the primary reasons having to do with Harding being thought of as having abilities below the office and the extensive corruption that existed in the Bureau of Veterans Affairs and the Justice Department as well as the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal. For the latter, he is probably too castigated for it, as Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall’s confirmation was uncontroversial in 1921. If Harding erred in judgement in appointing Fall, then the Senate erred in judgement for confirming him. Harding’s economic record also goes ignored, even though under his watch the country recovered from an economic depression and the Mellon tax cuts set up the country for an economic boom. Harding also attempted to further civil rights, which is also forgotten. He also appointed some good men in Andrew Mellon, Charles Evans Hughes, and Herbert Hoover. He probably doesn’t deserve as bad a rap as he gets, although his presidency was undoubtedly flawed, with him trusting the almost certainly corrupt Harry M. Daugherty to run the Justice Department.

What should be remembered? Cutting taxes, corruption, economic growth.

Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)

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Calvin Coolidge is most commonly known by the public, if thought of at all, as “Silent Cal” and who didn’t do much while in office. After Harding’s 1923 death, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office. He was instrumental in restoring public trust in government by causing the resignation of Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and running a corruption-free administration. Coolidge initially had an ambitious agenda, but his enthusiasm waned after the untimely death of his teenage son from a blood infection. Although Coolidge won handily in 1924, he would write later in his autobiography, “When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him” (Otfinoski, 53).

Among his achievements, Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, which established national origins quotas for immigration, severely restricting groups that were not Western or Northern European. The measure also contained, despite Coolidge’s objections, a complete ban on Japanese immigration. American Indians were granted citizenship, and Coolidge also called on Congress to no avail to pass anti-lynching legislation. Much of the agenda-setting went to Congress, which, like him, was conservative. Coolidge issued a few notable vetoes, such as the McNary-Haugen bill, which would have provided relief for agricultural areas that weren’t experiencing prosperity. This veto was based on Coolidge’s commitment to keeping government out of the market. Although he presided over significant economic growth and signed tax reduction legislation into law that helped its continuance, there is also the ever-nagging question as to how much responsibility Coolidge bears for the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, which is hard to ascertain given the variety of economic opinions as to what caused the Great Depression aside from buying on the margin.

What should be remembered? Commitment to limited government, tax cuts, restoration of integrity to the White House.

Whew…this was a long post. I had originally thought of posting something else, but since President’s Day just happened, this is most appropriate.

References

Arnold, P.E. William Howard Taft: Foreign Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/taft/foreign-affairs

Baker, J.H. Franklin Pierce: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/pierce/domestic-affairs

Baker, J.H. Franklin Pierce: Foreign Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/pierce/foreign-affairs

Chester Alan Arthur – Fighting a Hidden Illness. The University of Arizona Health Sciences Library.

Retrieved from http://ahsl.arizona.edu/about/exhibits/presidents/arthur

Chester A. Arthur – Key Events. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/chester-arthur/key-events

Cooper, W. James Buchanan: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/buchanan/domestic-affairs

Doenecke, J. James A. Garfield: Life Before the Presidency. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/garfield/life-before-the-presidency

Freehling, W. John Tyler: Foreign Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/tyler/foreign-affairs

Grover Cleveland – Key Events. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/grover-cleveland/key-events

John Tyler – Key Events. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/john-tyler/key-events

Ostend Manifesto. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Ostend-Manifesto

Otfinoski, S. (2009). Calvin Coolidge. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.

Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=Dy3UqSKVtU0C&pg=PA53&lpg=PA53

Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Payne-Aldrich-Tariff-Act

Rutherford B. Hayes – Key Events. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/rutherford-b-hayes/key-events

Silbey, J. Martin Van Buren: Life Before the Presidency. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/vanburen/life-before-the-presidency

Spetter, A.B. Benjamin Harrison: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/bharrison/domestic-affairs

Spetter, A.B. Benjamin Harrison: Foreign Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/bharrison/foreign-affairs

Trani, E.P. Warren Harding: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/harding/domestic-affairs

Warren G. Harding – Key Events. Miller Center.

Retrieved from https://millercenter.org/president/warren-g-harding/key-events

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