James Garfield was 20th president of the United States of America (1881)

Birth: November 19, 1831 at Cuyahoga County, Ohio as James Abram Garfield
Death: September 19, 1881 at Elberon, New Jersey

As the last of the log cabin Presidents, James A. Garfield attacked political corruption and won back for the Presidency a measure of prestige it had lost during the Reconstruction period.

He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Fatherless at two, he later drove canal boat teams, somehow earning enough money for an education. He was graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio as a classics professor. Within a year he was made its president.

Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession crisis, he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the Union.

In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general, two years later a major general of volunteers.

Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission: It was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House.

At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield failed to win the Presidential nomination for his friend John Sherman. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the “dark horse” nominee.

By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.

As President, Garfield strengthened Federal authority over the New York Customs House, stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was leader of the Stalwart Republicans and dispenser of patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted to the Senate a list of appointments including many of Conkling’s friends, he named Conkling’s arch-rival William H. Robertson to run the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried to persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its withdrawal.

But Garfield would not submit: “This…will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States…. shall the principal port of entry … be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator.”

Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm Garfield’s uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson. Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations except Robertson’s; the Senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments of Conkling’s friends.
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellow-Senator from New York resigned, confident that their legislature would vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the legislature elected two other men; the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield’s victory was complete.

In foreign affairs, Garfield’s Secretary of State invited all American republics to a conference to meet in Washington in 1882. But the conference never took place. On July 2, 1881, in a Washington railroad station, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post shot the President.

Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device which he had designed. On September 6, Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside. For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died from an infection and internal hemorrhage.

Rutherford B. Hayes was 19th president of the United States of America (1877-1881)

Birth: October 4, 1822 at Delaware, Ohio as Rutherford Birchard Hayes
Death: January 17, 1893 at Fremont, Ohio

Beneficiary of the most fiercely disputed election in American history, Rutherford B. Hayes brought to the Executive Mansion dignity, honesty, and moderate reform.

To the delight of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Lucy Webb Hayes carried out her husband’s orders to banish wines and liquors from the White House.

Born in Ohio in 1822, Hayes was educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. After five years of law practice in Lower Sandusky, he moved to Cincinnati, where he flourished as a young Whig lawyer.

He fought in the Civil War, was wounded in action, and rose to the rank of brevet major general. While he was still in the Army, Cincinnati Republicans ran him for the House of Representatives. He accepted the nomination, but would not campaign, explaining, “an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer… ought to be scalped.”

Elected by a heavy majority, Hayes entered Congress in December 1865, troubled by the “Rebel influences … ruling the White House.” Between 1867 and 1876 he served three terms as Governor of Ohio.

Safe liberalism, party loyalty, and a good war record made Hayes an acceptable Republican candidate in 1876. He opposed Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York.

Although a galaxy of famous Republican speakers, and even Mark Twain, stumped for Hayes, he expected the Democrats to win. When the first returns seemed to confirm this, Hayes went to bed, believing he had lost. But in New York, Republican National Chairman Zachariah Chandler, aware of a loophole, wired leaders to stand firm: “Hayes has 185 votes and is elected.” The popular vote apparently was 4,300,000 for Tilden to 4,036,000 for Hayes. Hayes’s election depended upon contested electoral votes in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. If all the disputed electoral votes went to Hayes, he would win; a single one would elect Tilden.

Months of uncertainty followed. In January 1877 Congress established an Electoral Commission to decide the dispute. The commission, made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, determined all the contests in favor of Hayes by eight to seven. The final electoral vote: 185 to 184.

Northern Republicans had been promising southern Democrats at least one Cabinet post, Federal patronage, subsidies for internal improvements, and withdrawal of troops from Louisiana and South Carolina.

Hayes insisted that his appointments must be made on merit, not political considerations. For his Cabinet he chose men of high caliber, but outraged many Republicans because one member was an ex-Confederate and another had bolted the party as a Liberal Republican in 1872.

Hayes pledged protection of the rights of Negroes in the South, but at the same time advocated the restoration of “wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government.” This meant the withdrawal of troops. Hayes hoped such conciliatory policies would lead to the building of a “new Republican party” in the South, to which white businessmen and conservatives would rally.

Many of the leaders of the new South did indeed favor Republican economic policies and approved of Hayes’s financial conservatism, but they faced annihilation at the polls if they were to join the party of Reconstruction. Hayes and his Republican successors were persistent in their efforts but could not win over the “solid South.”

Hayes had announced in advance that he would serve only one term, and retired to Spiegel Grove, his home in Fremont, Ohio, in 1881. He died in 1893.

Ulysses S. Grant was 18th president of the United States of America (1869-1877)

Birth: April 27, 1822 at Point Pleasant, Ohio as Hiram Ulysses Grant
Death: July 23, 1885 at Wilton, New York

Late in the administration of Andrew Johnson, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant quarreled with the President and aligned himself with the Radical Republicans. He was, as the symbol of Union victory during the Civil War, their logical candidate for President in 1868.

When he was elected, the American people hoped for an end to turmoil. Grant provided neither vigor nor reform. Looking to Congress for direction, he seemed bewildered. One visitor to the White House noted “a puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms.”

Born in 1822, Grant was the son of an Ohio tanner. He went to West Point rather against his will and graduated in the middle of his class. In the Mexican War he fought under Gen. Zachary Taylor.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was working in his father’s leather store in Galena, Illinois. He was appointed by the Governor to command an unruly volunteer regiment. Grant whipped it into shape and by September 1861 he had risen to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers.

He sought to win control of the Mississippi Valley. In February 1862 he took Fort Henry and attacked Fort Donelson. When the Confederate commander asked for terms, Grant replied, “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The Confederates surrendered, and President Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

At Shiloh in April, Grant fought one of the bloodiest battles in the West and came out less well. President Lincoln fended off demands for his removal by saying, “I can’t spare this man–he fights.”

For his next major objective, Grant maneuvered and fought skillfully to win Vicksburg, the key city on the Mississippi, and thus cut the Confederacy in two. Then he broke the Confederate hold on Chattanooga.

Lincoln appointed him General-in-Chief in March 1864. Grant directed Sherman to drive through the South while he himself, with the Army of the Potomac, pinned down Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Finally, on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered. Grant wrote out magnanimous terms of surrender that would prevent treason trials.

As President, Grant presided over the Government much as he had run the Army. Indeed he brought part of his Army staff to the White House.

Although a man of scrupulous honesty, Grant as President accepted handsome presents from admirers. Worse, he allowed himself to be seen with two speculators, Jay Gould and James Fisk. When Grant realized their scheme to corner the market in gold, he authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to sell enough gold to wreck their plans, but the speculation had already wrought havoc with business.

During his campaign for re-election in 1872, Grant was attacked by Liberal Republican reformers. He called them “narrow-headed men,” their eyes so close together that “they can look out of the same gimlet hole without winking.” The General’s friends in the Republican Party came to be known proudly as “the Old Guard.”

Grant allowed Radical Reconstruction to run its course in the South, bolstering it at times with military force.

After retiring from the Presidency, Grant became a partner in a financial firm, which went bankrupt. About that time he learned that he had cancer of the throat. He started writing his recollections to pay off his debts and provide for his family, racing against death to produce a memoir that ultimately earned nearly $450,000. Soon after completing the last page, in 1885, he died.

Andrew Johnson was 17th president of the United States of America (1865-1869)

Birth: December 29, 1808 at Raleigh, North Carolina
Death: July 31, 1875 near Elizabethton, Tennessee

With the Assassination of Lincoln, the Presidency fell upon an old-fashioned southern Jacksonian Democrat of pronounced states’ rights views. Although an honest and honorable man, Andrew Johnson was one of the most unfortunate of Presidents. Arrayed against him were the Radical Republicans in Congress, brilliantly led and ruthless in their tactics. Johnson was no match for them.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, Johnson grew up in poverty. He was apprenticed to a tailor as a boy, but ran away. He opened a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee, married Eliza McCardle, and participated in debates at the local academy.

Entering politics, he became an adept stump speaker, championing the common man and vilifying the plantation aristocracy. As a Member of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 1840’s and ’50’s, he advocated a homestead bill to provide a free farm for the poor man.

During the secession crisis, Johnson remained in the Senate even when Tennessee seceded, which made him a hero in the North and a traitor in the eyes of most Southerners. In 1862 President Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee, and Johnson used the state as a laboratory for reconstruction. In 1864 the Republicans, contending that their National Union Party was for all loyal men, nominated Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, for Vice President.

After Lincoln’s death, President Johnson proceeded to reconstruct the former Confederate States while Congress was not in session in 1865. He pardoned all who would take an oath of allegiance, but required leaders and men of wealth to obtain special Presidential pardons.

By the time Congress met in December 1865, most southern states were reconstructed, slavery was being abolished, but “black codes” to regulate the freedmen were beginning to appear.

Radical Republicans in Congress moved vigorously to change Johnson’s program. They gained the support of northerners who were dismayed to see Southerners keeping many prewar leaders and imposing many prewar restrictions upon Negroes.

The Radicals’ first step was to refuse to seat any Senator or Representative from the old Confederacy. Next they passed measures dealing with the former slaves. Johnson vetoed the legislation. The Radicals mustered enough votes in Congress to pass legislation over his veto–the first time that Congress had overridden a President on an important bill. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established Negroes as American citizens and forbade discrimination against them.

A few months later Congress submitted to the states the Fourteenth Amendment, which specified that no state should “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

All the former Confederate States except Tennessee refused to ratify the amendment; further, there were two bloody race riots in the South. Speaking in the Middle West, Johnson faced hostile audiences. The Radical Republicans won an overwhelming victory in Congressional elections that fall.

In March 1867, the Radicals effected their own plan of Reconstruction, again placing southern states under military rule. They passed laws placing restrictions upon the President. When Johnson allegedly violated one of these, the Tenure of Office Act, by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House voted eleven articles of impeachment against him. He was tried by the Senate in the spring of 1868 and acquitted by one vote.

In 1875, Tennessee returned Johnson to the Senate. He died a few months later.

Abraham Lincoln was 16th president of the United States of America (1861-1865)

Birth: February 12, 1809 at LaRue County, Kentucky
Death: April 15, 1865 at Washington, D.C.

Lincoln warned the South in his Inaugural Address: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you…. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”

Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend Federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the states for 75,000 volunteers. Four more slave states joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had begun.

The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party’s nomination for President, he sketched his life:

“I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families–second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks…. My father … removed from Kentucky to … Indiana, in my eighth year…. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up…. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher … but that was all.”

Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”

He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity. In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.

Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.

The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…. ”

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln’s death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.

James Buchanan was 15th president of the United States of America (1857-1861)

Birth: April 23, 1791 near Cove Gap, Pennsylvania as James Buchanan Jr.
Death: June 1, 1868 at Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Tall, stately, stiffly formal in the high stock he wore around his jowls, James Buchanan was the only President who never married.

Presiding over a rapidly dividing Nation, Buchanan grasped inadequately the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor could he realize how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split; the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans.

Born into a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in 1791, Buchanan, a graduate of Dickinson College, was gifted as a debater and learned in the law.

He was elected five times to the House of Representatives; then, after an interlude as Minister to Russia, served for a decade in the Senate. He became Polk’s Secretary of State and Pierce’s Minister to Great Britain. Service abroad helped to bring him the Democratic nomination in 1856 because it had exempted him from involvement in bitter domestic controversies.

As President-elect, Buchanan thought the crisis would disappear if he maintained a sectional balance in his appointments and could persuade the people to accept constitutional law as the Supreme Court interpreted it. The Court was considering the legality of restricting slavery in the territories, and two justices hinted to Buchanan what the decision would be.

Thus, in his Inaugural the President referred to the territorial question as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” since the Supreme Court was about to settle it “speedily and finally.”

Two days later Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Dred Scott decision, asserting that Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights in slaves in the territories. Southerners were delighted, but the decision created a furor in the North.

Buchanan decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state. Although he directed his Presidential authority to this goal, he further angered the Republicans and alienated members of his own party. Kansas remained a territory.

When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed fell before southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government reached a stalemate.

Sectional strife rose to such a pitch in 1860 that the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the Presidency. Consequently, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected even though his name appeared on no southern ballot. Rather than accept a Republican administration, the southern “fire-eaters” advocated secession.

President Buchanan, dismayed and hesitant, denied the legal right of states to secede but held that the Federal Government legally could not prevent them. He hoped for compromise, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise.

Then Buchanan took a more militant tack. As several Cabinet members resigned, he appointed northerners, and sent the Star of the West to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter. On January 9, 1861, the vessel was far away.

Buchanan reverted to a policy of inactivity that continued until he left office. In March 1861 he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland–where he died seven years later–leaving his successor to resolve the frightful issue facing the Nation.

Franklin Pierce was the 14th president of the United States of America (1853-1857)

Birth: November 23, 1804 at Hillsborough, New Hampshire
Death: October 8, 1869 at Concord, New Hampshire

Franklin Pierce became President at a time of apparent tranquility. The United States, by virtue of the Compromise of 1850, seemed to have weathered its sectional storm. By pursuing the recommendations of southern advisers, Pierce–a New Englander–hoped to prevent still another outbreak of that storm. But his policies, far from preserving calm, hastened the disruption of the Union.

Born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, in 1804, Pierce attended Bowdoin College. After graduation he studied law, then entered politics. At 24 he was elected to the New Hampshire legislature; two years later he became its Speaker. During the 1830’s he went to Washington, first as a Representative, then as a Senator.

Pierce, after serving in the Mexican War, was proposed by New Hampshire friends for the Presidential nomination in 1852. At the Democratic Convention, the delegates agreed easily enough upon a platform pledging undeviating support of the Compromise of 1850 and hostility to any efforts to agitate the slavery question. But they balloted 48 times and eliminated all the well-known candidates before nominating Pierce, a true “dark horse.”

Probably because the Democrats stood more firmly for the Compromise than the Whigs, and because Whig candidate Gen. Winfield Scott was suspect in the South, Pierce won with a narrow margin of popular votes.

Two months before he took office, he and his wife saw their eleven-year-old son killed when their train was wrecked. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted.

In his Inaugural he proclaimed an era of peace and prosperity at home, and vigor in relations with other nations. The United States might have to acquire additional possessions for the sake of its own security, he pointed out, and would not be deterred by “any timid forebodings of evil.”

Pierce had only to make gestures toward expansion to excite the wrath of northerners, who accused him of acting as a cat’s-paw of Southerners eager to extend slavery into other areas. Therefore he aroused apprehension when he pressured Great Britain to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and even more when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba.

But the most violent renewal of the storm stemmed from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, the handiwork of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, grew in part out of his desire to promote a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska. Already Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10,000,000.

Douglas’s proposal, to organize western territories through which a railroad might run, caused extreme trouble. Douglas provided in his bills that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. The result was a rush into Kansas, as southerners and northerners vied for control of the territory. Shooting broke out, and “bleeding Kansas” became a prelude to the Civil War.

By the end of his administration, Pierce could claim “a peaceful condition of things in Kansas.” But, to his disappointment, the Democrats refused to renominate him, turning to the less controversial Buchanan. Pierce returned to New Hampshire, leaving his successor to face the rising fury of the sectional whirlwind. He died in 1869.

Millard Fillmore was 13th president of the United States of America (1850-1853)

Birth: January 7, 1800 at Cayuga County, New York
Death: March 8, 1874 at Buffalo, New York

In his rise from a log cabin to wealth and the White House, Millard Fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competence an uninspiring man could make the American dream come true.

Born in the Finger Lakes country of New York in 1800, Fillmore as a youth endured the privations of frontier life. He worked on his father’s farm, and at 15 was apprenticed to a cloth dresser. He attended one-room schools, and fell in love with the redheaded teacher, Abigail Powers, who later became his wife.

In 1823 he was admitted to the bar; seven years later he moved his law practice to Buffalo. As an associate of the Whig politician Thurlow Weed, Fillmore held state office and for eight years was a member of the House of Representatives. In 1848, while Comptroller of New York, he was elected Vice President.

Fillmore presided over the Senate during the months of nerve-wracking debates over the Compromise of 1850. He made no public comment on the merits of the compromise proposals, but a few days before President Taylor’s death, he intimated to him that if there should be a tie vote on Henry Clay’s bill, he would vote in favor of it.

Thus the sudden accession of Fillmore to the Presidency in July 1850 brought an abrupt political shift in the administration. Taylor’s Cabinet resigned and President Fillmore at once appointed Daniel Webster to be Secretary of State, thus proclaiming his alliance with the moderate Whigs who favored the Compromise.

A bill to admit California still aroused all the violent arguments for and against the extension of slavery, without any progress toward settling the major issues.

Clay, exhausted, left Washington to recuperate, throwing leadership upon Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. At this critical juncture, President Fillmore announced in favor of the Compromise. On August 6, 1850, he sent a message to Congress recommending that Texas be paid to abandon her claims to part of New Mexico.

This helped influence a critical number of northern Whigs in Congress away from their insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso–the stipulation that all land gained by the Mexican War must be closed to slavery.

Douglas’s effective strategy in Congress combined with Fillmore’s pressure from the White House to give impetus to the Compromise movement. Breaking up Clay’s single legislative package, Douglas presented five separate bills to the Senate:

1. Admit California as a free state.
2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate her.
3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
4. Place Federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking fugitives.
5. Abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Each measure obtained a majority, and by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Webster wrote, “I can now sleep of nights.”

Some of the more militant northern Whigs remained irreconcilable, refusing to forgive Fillmore for having signed the Fugitive Slave Act. They helped deprive him of the Presidential nomination in 1852.

Within a few years it was apparent that although the Compromise had been intended to settle the slavery controversy, it served rather as an uneasy sectional truce.

As the Whig Party disintegrated in the 1850’s, Fillmore refused to join the Republican Party; but, instead, in 1856 accepted the nomination for President of the Know Nothing, or American, Party. Throughout the Civil War he opposed President Lincoln and during Reconstruction supported President Johnson. He died in 1874.

Zachary Taylor was a war hero and the 12th president of the United States (1849-1850)

Birth: November 24, 1784 at Orange County, Virginia
Death: July 9, 1850 at Washington, D.C

Northerners and Southerners disputed sharply whether the territories wrested from Mexico should be opened to slavery, and some Southerners even threatened secession. Standing firm, Zachary Taylor was prepared to hold the Union together by armed force rather than by compromise.

Born in Virginia in 1784, he was taken as an infant to Kentucky and raised on a plantation. He was a career officer in the Army, but his talk was most often of cotton raising. His home was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he owned a plantation in Mississippi.

But Taylor did not defend slavery or southern sectionalism; 40 years in the Army made him a strong nationalist.

He spent a quarter of a century policing the frontiers against Indians. In the Mexican War he won major victories at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

President Polk, disturbed by General Taylor’s informal habits of command and perhaps his Whiggery as well, kept him in northern Mexico and sent an expedition under Gen. Winfield Scott to capture Mexico City. Taylor, incensed, thought that “the battle of Buena Vista opened the road to the city of Mexico and the halls of Montezuma, that others might revel in them.”

“Old Rough and Ready’s” homespun ways were political assets. His long military record would appeal to northerners; his ownership of 100 slaves would lure southern votes. He had not committed himself on troublesome issues. The Whigs nominated him to run against the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, who favored letting the residents of territories decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery.

In protest against Taylor the slaveholder and Cass the advocate of “squatter sovereignty,” northerners who opposed extension of slavery into territories formed a Free Soil Party and nominated Martin Van Buren. In a close election, the Free Soilers pulled enough votes away from Cass to elect Taylor.

Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress. He acted at times as though he were above parties and politics. As disheveled as always, Taylor tried to run his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Indians.

Traditionally, people could decide whether they wanted slavery when they drew up new state constitutions. Therefore, to end the dispute over slavery in new areas, Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage.

Southerners were furious, since neither state constitution was likely to permit slavery; Members of Congress were dismayed, since they felt the President was usurping their policy-making prerogatives. In addition, Taylor’s solution ignored several acute side issues: the northern dislike of the slave market operating in the District of Columbia; and the southern demands for a more stringent fugitive slave law.

In February 1850 President Taylor had held a stormy conference with southern leaders who threatened secession. He told them that if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army. Persons “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang … with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” He never wavered.

Then events took an unexpected turn. After participating in ceremonies at the Washington Monument on a blistering July 4, Taylor fell ill; within five days he was dead. After his death, the forces of compromise triumphed, but the war Taylor had been willing to face came 11 years later. In it, his only son Richard served as a general in the Confederate Army.

James K. Polk was 11th president of the United States of America (1845-1849)

Birth: November 2, 1795 at Mecklenburg County, North Carolina as James Knox Polk
Death: June 15, 1849 at Nashville, Tennessee

Often referred to as the first “dark horse” President, James K. Polk was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the last strong President until the Civil War.

He was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in 1795. Studious and industrious, Polk was graduated with honors in 1818 from the University of North Carolina. As a young lawyer he entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and became a friend of Andrew Jackson.

In the House of Representatives, Polk was a chief lieutenant of Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker between 1835 and 1839, leaving to become Governor of Tennessee.

Until circumstances raised Polk’s ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1844. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue out of the campaign by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas. Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be “re-annexed” and all of Oregon “re-occupied.”

The aged Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansion, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the Nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” This view prevailed at the Democratic Convention, where Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot.

“Who is James K. Polk?” Whigs jeered. Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California.

Even before he could take office, Congress passed a joint resolution offering annexation to Texas. In so doing they bequeathed Polk the possibility of war with Mexico, which soon severed diplomatic relations.

In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking war with Great Britain also. The 1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 54’40’, the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed “Fifty-four forty or fight,” but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Happily, neither he nor the British wanted a war.

He offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. Finally, the British settled for the 49th parallel, except for the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The treaty was signed in 1846.

Acquisition of California proved far more difficult. Polk sent an envoy to offer Mexico up to $20,000,000, plus settlement of damage claims owed to Americans, in return for California and the New Mexico country. Since no Mexican leader could cede half his country and still stay in power, Polk’s envoy was not received. To bring pressure, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the disputed area on the Rio Grande.

To Mexican troops this was aggression, and they attacked Taylor’s forces.

Congress declared war and, despite much Northern opposition, supported the military operations. American forces won repeated victories and occupied Mexico City. Finally, in 1848, Mexico ceded New Mexico and California in return for $15,000,000 and American assumption of the damage claims.

President Polk added a vast area to the United States, but its acquisition precipitated a bitter quarrel between the North and the South over expansion of slavery.

Polk, leaving office with his health undermined from hard work, died in June 1849.