Ex-Presidents and the War of the Rebellion

A bit of news I have not been examining too much lately is the unprecedented FBI raid on a former president’s home. There is still much to know about what is going on, but we at least now know that the information they sought was subpoenaed by the Justice Department and the outcome of this was presumably negative. While no former president has had their private home raided by the FBI, the closest comparison I can think of is how former presidents reacted to the War of the Rebellion. By the start of the war, five former presidents were alive. Their responses varied and one was even treasonous. This is covered further as a subject in historian Chris DeRose’s The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2015).

Martin Van Buren, Democrat, 1837-41.

Martin Van Buren, president from 1837 to 1841, was one of the founders of the Democratic Party and President Jackson’s anointed successor. Van Buren, like many people of his day, was conflicted on the question of slavery and union. He certainly believed the practice itself to be an evil, writing in 1819, “Morally and politically speaking slavery is a moral evil” (NPS). In 1821, he had voted to extend suffrage to black men in New York, but with a property limitation that made it so nearly all black men couldn’t vote. Van Buren supported upholding the union if it meant retention of slavery or the end of it. He had also sided with the Spanish government in the Amistad case and believed that black people of African descent were not subject to Constitutional protections, similar to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s view in the Dred Scott decision. However, in 1844 he would oppose the annexation of Texas as it would add another slave state and this cost him the Democratic nomination.

In 1848, Van Buren decisively moved in the anti-slavery column in his candidacy for president on the Free Soil ticket. He strongly disapproved of the handling of the slavery issue under Pierce and Buchanan but was reluctant to back Republican Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, Van Buren had attempted to pull off a scheme to deny Lincoln the victory in 1860 and had voted for Stephen Douglas. However, he did come to support the war effort to hold the union together and refused to back Franklin Pierce’s effort to get the five former presidents to write a letter in opposition to Lincoln. Van Buren died before the war’s conclusion.

John Tyler, Whig, 1841-45.

John Tyler was commonly known as the “accidental president” in his time, as he had succeeded William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia one month into his term. He became known for bucking the Whig Party, most bitterly on the issue of reinstating the Second Bank of the United States, to the degree that he was read out of the party in 1844. Tyler was a consistent defender of slavery throughout his career and owned numerous slaves in his life, although he was compared to other slaveowners at the time quite humane in his treatment of them, forbidding his overseers from whipping them. In 1860, Tyler backed John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democratic candidate, for the presidency. Although after the election he supported a last-ditch effort for a peace conference to stop the war, when the time came for his state of Virginia to decide whether to secede, Tyler was on board. In 1862, he was elected to the Confederate Congress, but died before he could take his seat.

Millard Fillmore, Whig, 1850-53.

Millard Fillmore was nominally opposed to slavery, namely the influence of slave states on American politics, but signed the Compromise of 1850 into law in an effort to preserve the union. This law gave some major concessions to the South including the Federal government being used to apprehend escaped slaves.

After his presidency, Fillmore campaigned for preservation of the union and for slavery remaining a state question. In 1856, he was drafted to run for president as the candidate of the American (“Know Nothing”) Party. Although he lacked animus to immigrants, he did push his campaign forward by warning of foreign influence in American elections. Fillmore also spoke in the South in support of maintaining the union. He opposed Buchanan’s passivity in the face of the growing threat of secession and voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, regarding secessionists as traitors.

Fillmore concluded that the election of Lincoln caused the War of the Rebellion but supported the war effort and helped recruit soldiers for the cause. However, he opposed emancipation and supported George McClellan in 1864, calling for a peace that would readmit the Southern states as slave states. Fillmore was never forgiven for some for his signing the Fugitive Slave Law; after President Lincoln’s assassination his house was smudged with black paint by a mob (Holt).

Franklin Pierce, Democrat, 1853-57.

Pierce’s presidency was famously disastrous with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 causing the Kansas territory to become a battleground in which pro and anti-slavery settlers camped in the state to vote on whether it was slave or free and proceeded to murder each other. “Bleeding Kansas” as it was known, was a preview of the coming war. He had beforehand been known foremost as an anti-abolitionist and while he was in the Senate, his best friend had been none other than Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who he had made his Secretary of War and remained close friends with him until the end of his days. Pierce’s term was considered so disastrous by Democrats that he lost renomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1856. Of the presidents who stuck with the Union, he was the most antagonistic to Lincoln and the war effort. He had in 1860 backed Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge and attempted to assemble the last five presidents into a united front opposing President Lincoln going to war. However, he was unable to get agreement on it. He also believed, unlike the other former presidents who remained in the Union, that the South should just be let go. Pierce was antagonistic in his opposition to the point that many people initially believed a forged letter that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the president and install himself. It was also discovered in 1863 that Pierce had been maintaining a secret correspondence with Confederate President Jefferson Davis after the latter’s home had been captured and searched. Pierce also had to talk down a mob from burning down his house after he wouldn’t lower the American flag after President Lincoln’s assassination. Having faced a lot of tragedy and having surrendered to the bottle, he would succumb to his alcoholism in 1869.

James Buchanan, Democrat, 1857-61.

Although James Buchanan may have been a weak and awful president who did nothing to stop secession and pushed a pseudo-neutrality on slavery (he was one of the “doughfaces”), he was supportive of President Lincoln and the Union war effort. Buchanan believed that although the South had no right to secede, the United States had no right to stop them. At the end of his presidency, he called for union but with a guarantee that slavery would remain a state question. In 1860, Buchanan backed Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge for president. Like Jimmy Carter, he may have been a bad president, but he was a pretty good former president. In 1866, Buchanan wrote a book that blamed the Republican Party and abolitionists for the War of the Rebellion.

President Franklin Pierce, 1853-57.

Of all the presidents, the one whose situation seems most similar to that of former President Donald Trump is Franklin Pierce. Like Pierce, he was a staunch foe of the administration, and he has been accused of treason but despite what some have said about it, it is not proven. Pierce had been accused of treason by Secretary of War William Seward. Also similar was that some of his personal documents were seized by the Federal government in the form of correspondence when Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s home was captured and searched in 1863.


Baker, J.H. Franklin Pierce: Life After the Presidency. Miller Center.

Retrieved from


Cooper, W. James Buchanan: Life After the Presidency. Miller Center.

Retrieved from


DeRose, C. (2014, June 27). When Lincoln saved the union and freed the slaves, five ex-presidents tried to stop him. The Washington Post.

Retrieved from


Freehling, W. John Tyler: Life After the Presidency. Miller Center.


Holt, M. Millard Fillmore: Life After the Presidency. Miller Center.

Retrieved from


Kelly, J. (2013, February 24). John Tyler, traitor? Well, yes, actually… The Washington Post.

Retrieved from


Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Slavery. National Park Service.

Retrieved from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s