Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Better Know a President! (Series II): Part Four: The Log-Cabin President

Some of the presidents I've mentioned in this series, like John Quincy Adams, had more significant pre-presidential careers than presidencies.  In William Harrison's case, this was necessarily true because he dropped dead only thirty days into his term.  Apart from saddling the republic with his running-mate, the ill-favored and self-satisfied John Tyler, Harrison's only presidential legacy was his 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign, in which his handlers cast him as a rustic, homespun frontier hero.  Actually, as anyone who has visited Harrison's mansion in Vincennes knows, the former territorial governor was no stranger to elegant living, and he hailed from a prominent Virginia family, albeit one that left him little property.  As governor of Indiana, Harrison pursued a plan of economic development similar to that of colonial Virginia: buy up all of the Indian land in sight and import African slave laborers to work on it.  The second of these plans came to naught, as slavery was illegal in the Northwest Territory, Congress refused to lift the ban, and Harrison, loyal federal official that he was, refused to proceed without Congress’s backing.  The first plan enjoyed the support of the War Department and the Senate, but it brought Harrison into conflict with local Indian communities and with Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.  The Shawnee brothers and their associates wanted to create an autonomous Indian state in the region and particularly objected to the 1809 Fort Wayne treaty cession, a 2.5-million acre tract which W.H.H. procured through economic coercion and alcohol.  Threatening speeches by Tecumseh nearly led to violence between him and Harrison in 1810, and eventually caused Harrison to organize a pre-emptive strike against the confederates' capital of Prophetstown.  This resulted (November 1811) in the inglorious battle of Tippecanoe, which Harrison later turned into a political legend and a catchy nickname. Harrison subsequently led the expedition that defeated Tecumseh's confederation and killed the war captain, but the War of 1812 did not otherwise lift the governor’s political fortunes, and after it ended he moved to Ohio.  From thence he served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator, and there he retired, after a brief diplomatic mission to Colombia, to the life of a gentleman farmer and whiskey distiller.  In the 1830s the Whig Party’s search for a backwoods war-hero candidate like Andy Jackson gave Harrison a shot at the highest office, and he finally won it at the advanced age of 68.  What would have happened if he had lived out his first term is hard to imagine, but one might hazard a guess after looking at the presidential career of his accidental successor.

(The above image is of Grouseland, Harrison's log cabin in Vincennes.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part Three): Squirt-Wirt-Wirt

Like the Adamses, Martin Van Buren had a more distinguished, or rather a more significant, pre-presidential career than his presidential one. In the 1820s he served as a U.S. Senator from New York and helped organize the highly-disciplined political machine, the Albany Regency, that became one of the nuclei of the Democratic Party. To a great extent Van Buren was the inventor of the national Democratic Party, which he believed could unify sections of the country that had recently clashed with one another over the issue of slavery expansion, in the Missouri Crisis of 1819-21. Party discipline, and the rewards of patronage, could prevent Northern and Southern whites from fighting with one another and instead turn them against the real enemies: the National Republicans and Whigs. Ostensibly, this meant that the two sections' Democratic politicians would settle disputes over slavery with compromises. In reality, Southern Democrats inevitably demanded that their Northern counterparts protect the interests of slaveholders, and they found ample support from Northern Democrats (“Doughfaces”) who favored party unity more than human rights. Hence the anti-abolitionist Congressional “gag rule” of 1836-44, the de facto placement of the U.S. Post Office under state censorship authority in the South, the re-enslavement and sale of slaves taken by the U.S. Navy from illegal slave traders, and other pro-slavery federal policies. Van Buren supported these policies even if he did not sponsor all of them.

None of these issues greatly affected Van Buren's presidency, in part because his Whig rivals were not an anti-slavery party and did not use slavery as a political cudgel against the Democrats, and in part because he spent his time in office dealing with the consequences of Jackson's presidency. While Indian Removal was Andrew Jackson's legacy Van Buren was just as determined to carry the program through; it was he who sent federal troops into the Cherokee nation to remove the Cherokees at gunpoint, resulting in the death of 4,500 people. It was Van Buren, not Jackson, who had to deal with the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed it, even though Jackson's deflationary Specie Circular had probably contributed to the downturn. The depression was still underway at the end of Van Buren's first term and was the principal factor leading to his defeat in the 1840 election, though William Harrison's partisans did put together a very creative and Barnum-esque presidential campaign, including such ditties as these:

Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt,
But Mat he wears the golden plate
And he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt.

Or so reports Joe Queenan (Imperial Caddy [Hyperion, 1992], 115.) “Tip,” by the way, is short for “Tippecanoe,” Harrison's nickname, and “Mat” for “Matty Van,” the Whig's nickname for their opponent.

President Van Buren also had to deal with the toxic issue of slavery expansion, when representatives of the newly-independent Republic of Texas applied for annexation to the United States. Matty Van's predecessor, Jackson, favored the annexation of Texas, but Van Buren feared that adding a large new slave state to the Union could split the Democratic Party, and so he instead recognized Texas as an independent nation. This was one instance when Van Buren actually stood up to the pro-slavery faction in his party, and at the time it worked: Southern whites chose not to fight and instead merely loaned Texas a lot of money. To his credit, and eventual downfall, Matty stuck to his guns on the Texas annexation issue. When Van B. sought the Democratic presidential nomination again in 1844, Southern slave-owners denied him the prize because of his stance on Texas, which President John Tyler had persuaded Southern whites they could now obtain as a new slave state (or possibly as many as five if Texans chose to divide the territory). Van Buren's defeat won him a consolation prize four years later, when the Free Soil Party made him their presidential nominee. It would be going too far, as They Might Be Giants did (in their song “James K. Polk”), to call Mssr. Van Buren an “abolitionist,” but he did lead opponents of slavery expansion out of the Democratic Party, helping ensure the Democrats' electoral loss in 1848 and ultimately the breakup of that party along sectional lines in the 1850s. Clio, the Muse of History, rarely shows a sense of humor, but she does appreciate irony.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Better Living through Ethnic Cleansing (Better Know a President, Series II, Part 2)

American presidents, as I've said before, have generally been a dull lot, but some still inspire genuine passion. Andrew Jackson was certainly one of these. Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz have characterized Prez Seven as a populist hero who slew the aristocratic Bank of the U.S. and stood up to South Carolina nabobs during the Nullification Crisis. Others have noted that Jackson spent much of his life scrambling into the planter aristocracy, and that his most significant accomplishment as president, Indian Removal, killed perhaps 20,000 people and drove 100,000 more from their homes. I tend to side with the latter group, but when I talk about Removal with my students I argue that that what drove this shameful episode was not only hatred for Indians but also a desire for economic development.

Jackson believed that most eastern Indians remained hunters, and occupied lands that white farmers should take and make productive. "What good man would prefer a country covered with forest and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic...embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute?” he asked in his 1830 State of the Union message. The president's unfairly characterized the eastern Indians, nearly all of whom practiced agriculture and many of whom raised livestock and cotton. But Jackson and his partisans, like Lewis Cass (his secretary of war), identified agriculture with capitalism, and classified land itself as a marketable resource that one could and should sell to the most productive commercial farmers. Most eastern Indians practiced subsistence rather than commercial agriculture, and carefully restricted the ownership and sale of land by individuals, so Jackson and many of his contemporaries did not consider them “proper” farmers. In many Native American communities women rather than men did the farming, and to the Jacksonians women's activities mattered less. Moreover, as Mary Young and Ginette Aley have noted, eastern Indians remained politically autonomous in the 1830s, and thus they were a giant null to local politicians counting their states' resources: they didn't pay taxes, they weren't counted in the Census, and their lands lay athwart rights-of-way for internal improvements. Removing them would promote political and economic growth: railroads and canals could stretch across former Indian lands, states' measured populations and tax bases would grow, and commercial farms would replace Indian “hunting grounds.” Indian Removal was, in short, a giant development program, which explains why Jackson and his successors spent upwards of $90 million and fought three wars on its behalf.

This is not to say that the proponents of Indian Removal weren't racists. That they clearly were, as demonstrated by their belief that Indians could not adapt to change and would surely succumb to hunger and alcoholism – or attack their new white neighbors – if not removed. “Existing for two centuries in contact with a civilized people,” Lewis Cass charged in 1830, “they have resisted, and successfully too, every effort to...introduce among them the most common arts of life.” Mary Young and Thomas Ingersoll have noted another important racist motive for Removal: like supporters of African-American colonization, proponents of Indian Removal wanted to prevent racial intermarriage, which they believed would degrade the white race. As early as the 1810s, southern newspaper editors argued that “the disgusting habits and vices of the Indians” made intermarriage unthinkable, and characterized “half-breed” children as innately crafty, shifty, and morally dissipated. Biracial Indians also allegedly endangered their own Native American kinsmen, in that they tended to oppose Removal – a policy Jacksonians thought would benefit “full-blooded” Indian hunters – in order to protect the property they had inherited or finagled from whites. (This also provided Removal supporters with a ready reply to anyone arguing that many eastern Indians were becoming more “civilized:” only the “mixed-bloods” were doing so. In other words, “These fellers is miscegenated!”) Separate the races, and ultimately both would benefit.

I've moved some distance away from the putative subject of this essay, Andrew Jackson, but I hope my readers will understand why. Increasingly, modern Americans associate Jackson with Indian Removal, and I think it important to stress that this was a huge undertaking, requiring as much money and organization, and generating as many fatalities, as a war. No one person can rightly shoulder all of the blame for so massive an enterprise. Jackson championed the Indian Removal Act, but Indian Removal itself was a national, not a personal crime.

Sources: Mary Young, “Racism in Red and Black,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 73 (1989): 492-518, “disgusting habits” at 493; idem, “The Exercise of Sovereignty in Cherokee Georgia,” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (1990): 43-63; Nichols, “Land, Republicanism, and Indians,” Georgia Hist. Quarterly 85 (2001): 199-226; Thomas Ingersoll, To Intermix with Our White Brothers (University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Theda Perdue and Michael Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005), “Existing for two” at 118, “What good man” at 127; Ginette Aley, “Bringing about the Dawn,” in Daniel Barr, ed., The Boundaries Between Us (Kent State University Press, 2006), 196-218. “These fellers is miscegenated” is adapted from O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen (2001).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Better Know A President! Series II (Introduction)

Last year I inaugurated an annual "Better Know a President" series with links to several blog entries I had written on the first five American presidents.  Since my research tends to focus on the colonial and early national eras, I've not written very much about the post-Virginia-Dynasty presidents, apart from the "Anti-Presidents'-Day" essays I wrote in response to a comment from Katherine Osburn.  For President's Day this year, rather than simply write "I haven't had much to say here about Jackson/Van Buren/Harrison/whoever," I plan instead to craft some new blog entries on each of the five presidents from J.Q. Adams to John Tyler.

Let's start with John Quincy Adams:

I've mentioned Adams before, apropos of his post-presidential service as a Congressman, foe of slavery, and founder of the Smithsonian Institution. Biographers of JQA usually also note his distinguished earlier career as a U.S. Senator, a diplomat to Britain, Russia, Prussia, and the Netherlands, and secretary of state.  And, if they are honest, they admit that he was a sublimely ineffective president. Adams's presidency was in some ways doomed from the start, as he was chosen for the office not by the Electoral College but the U.S. House of Representatives, where wire-pulling by Henry Clay later tainted both men with charges of corruption.  In his first State of the Union message, Adams further alienated potential supporters by urging Congress to embark on an expensive program of public works and scientific research, and not to be "palsied by the wills of [y]our constituents" (quoted in Ralph Ketcham, Presidents above Party (North Carolina, 1984), 136.) This extraordinarily anti-democratic remark is ironic, given that Adams was the first American president to refer to the United States as a democracy (or "representative democracy"), but it typifies his aristocratic aloofness.  Adams ignored the increasingly partisan nature of national politics in the 1820s, to the point that he refused to remove supporters of Andrew Jackson from his Cabinet. Jackson's more energetic, well-organized, and populist campaign easily crushed JQA in the 1828 election.

Among the charges that Jackson's partisans leveled against Adams in that election, incidentally, was the scurrilous claim that he had once pimped for Tsar Alexander I of Russia. It is probably just as well that this was untrue, as it would have made for some of the dreariest historical slash-fiction imaginable.


More to come over the next few days, including Jackson and Indian Removal and the William Henry Harrison counterfactual.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Ever Faithful to Thee, Liechtenstein, After My Fashion

My penguin-fancier colleagues on Reddit have drawn my attention back to Liechtenstein, the tiny principality I last mentioned in a 2007 post. Christiaan Klieger's book The Microstates of Europe (Lexington Books, 2013) provides the historical back story of this statelet, most famous for being small. Liechtenstein derives its name from an Austrian family whose scion Hans-Adam Andrew purchased the two demesnes that later comprised the nation-state, Schellenberg and Vaduz, about three centuries ago. The ambitious Hans-Adam sought to obtain “a seat in the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire” (p. 43), not to become a gentleman farmer, and while the emperor soon united the family's holdings into an independent principality (1719), no member of the princely family even visited Liechtenstein until 1842. The princes' subjects remained fairly poor into the early twentieth century, flirting with famine and vulnerable to floods and financial ruin. Since the Second World War, however, the principality's standard of living has risen dramatically, thanks to a boom in tourism and industrial production (Liechtenstein's industrial exports reached a value of about $180 million by the 1980s). The princely family's private bank, now operating as a public business under the name Liechtenstein LGT Bank, probably contributed to this rise. The Liechtenstein family itself has resided full-time in the principality since 1938, when they decided to leave Austria for some reason.  The current prince, Hans-Adam II, owns more than $7 billion worth of real estate, bank stock, and artwork, though rumors of his involvement with “goat bills,” gyrocopters, and kidnapped princesses are exaggerated at best.

I am pleased to note that my earlier assessment of Liechtenstein's military history more or less conforms with the actual historical record. The principality suffered two foreign invasions in 1799, when French and Austrian troops chased one another across its territory and drained local householders' resources. Seven years later Napoleon demanded forty soldiers from Liechtenstein as part of its “dues” for joining the Confederation of the Rhine; the prince hired foreign substitutes instead. Johann II did raise some troops for the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, but following what Klieger calls “six weeks of non-engagement in the Alps,” they went home (47). Liechtenstein did not subsequently raise an army; I regret to say it does not even maintain a squad of long-bowmen. Since the 1920s it has maintained both political neutrality and an open border with Switzerland, whose accidental invasion of the country in 2007 had no political effect whatsoever.

Klieger devotes a page to the national cuisine of Liechtenstein, which consists chiefly of cornmeal mush and gravy (local farmers have been raising maize since the eighteenth century), schnitzel, vanilla meringue, sour cream with noodles, “split-pea-sausage stew,” “cheese and mushroom pudding,” “cornmeal and wheat dumplings in ham broth,” and “lemon crème filled ravioli,” or zitronenpalatschinken (54). Some locals probably just inject pureed dumplings and heavy cream directly into their arteries to save time.