No president takes office hoping to be the worst. There's good to be found in all of them.
In our increasingly divided political world, it's important to take the time to realize that no President of the United States takes office hoping to be remembered as the worst to ever hold the office. And even though one out of our 45 historical Presidents has to hold that position, I'm sorry to tell you that it's not one of the Presidents who ever held the office in our lifetimes.
"What? Seven states left the Union? Better do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING."
Part two of this series that highlights the most patriotic moments of every Presidency covers Presidents 12-22, from Zachary Taylor to Grover Cleveland. It also includes James Buchanan, which is interesting because Buchanan jokes have been hard to come up with since 1881.
Zachary Taylor had been serving the United States in the Army all the way back to the War of 1812. But by the time came for war with Mexico, Taylor was a general – and a good one. Beating the Mexicans paved his way to the White House.
What's more patriotic than 30-plus years destroying America's enemies? As President, Taylor didn't serve long, but like Andrew Jackson, he asserted the authority of the federal government over the states at a time when it was most important. When Texas and New Mexico entered a border dispute, Taylor stepped in and settled the land boundary. When Texas refused to comply, Taylor threatened to lead an Army – himself – down to Texas, saying everyone there "taken in rebellion against the Union, would hang with less reluctance than hanging deserters and spies in Mexico."
That's a Commander-In-Chief.
Not terribly good with handling ongoing domestic trouble, Millard Fillmore was definitely not going to take shit from some other country.
Fillmore took office after Taylor died from an intestinal ailment involving fruit and iced milk. Fillmore, true to the duties of Vice-President took office to finish up Taylor's term. It was lucky for France and Portugal that President Taylor was uninterested in foreign affairs, but President Fillmore certainly was.
When Fillmore found out that France, under Napoleon III, was meddling in the affairs of Hawaii, he issued them a stern warning – those were in the American sphere of influence. He also sought money owed to the U.S. from Portugal and sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to open the island nation up for trade... American trade.
The second installment of this list will include many Presidents that are in the running for the title of "worst." Franklin Pierce is perpetually nominated for the dubious honor. While the former general's patriotism is beyond reproach, his skills in office definitely are not. To make matters worse, his tenure is also ranked as one of the least memorable.
What's most patriotic about Pierce's tenure is that Pierce ended up losing his party's nomination for re-election and he accepted that outcome, stepping aside for the election of 1856. The peaceful transfer of power is a central tenet to American Democracy and Pierce more than upheld that tradition.
Called "Old Buck" in his later years.
Here it is: the actual worst president ever. As I've noted time and again, even James Buchanan didn't enter office wanting to be the worst. He genuinely thought he was doing what was best for the United States. What he did, however, was absolutely not the best thing for the United States. Even though his tenure is overshadowed by his inaction on the eve of the Civil War, it wasn't entirely without patriotic moments.
In 1855, the USS Water Witch was fired on by guns from a Paraguayan fort while surveying the Rio de la Plata basin. The attack killed the Water Witch's helmsman. In response, Buchanan sent a U.S. Navy Squadron of 19 ships to Paraguay (which included the refurbished Water Witch). Paraguay apologized to the United States, paid an indemnity to the family of the Water Witch's helmsman, and granted favorable trade status to the U.S. — all without firing a shot.
Finally, a President with a beard takes office.
The night is darkest just before dawn. When Lincoln took office, seven states already seceded from the Union. Lincoln tried many last-minute measures to hold the Union together, including writing a letter to each governor individually, reminding them that he wasn't coming for them and that a Constitutional convention to make an amendment respecting the rights of the states was possible. It was all for naught.
When he determined the Civil War was coming whether he liked it or not, he was decisive. He quickly authorized the formation of the Union Army, helped create a Union strategy to blockade and attack the Confederacy, soothed the fears of border states that might have otherwise seceded, and paid close attention to foreign policy to keep foreign powers from supporting the Confederacy. He eventually found the right combination of Army leadership in Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who helped bring the South to its knees.
Lincoln's deft political prowess and patience allowed him to free the slaves in the states that were in rebellion and then, after the Election of 1864, when the Congress was packed with fellow Republicans, freed the slaves everywhere in the United States.
"Man, Abraham Lincoln is a tough act to follow. How am I supposed to compete with that?" - Andrew Johnson
Johnson had none of Lincoln's finer qualities – no wisdom, no popularity, no beard. Even though Johnson wanted a swift reconstruction after the Civil War as Lincoln did, he had none of the power Lincoln could muster through sheer force of will. As a matter of fact, Congress repeatedly overrode his vetos and the House of Representatives even impeached him. He barely avoided conviction. His entire term was spent in fights with Congress.
The one shining moment of
American Union patriotism was in his dealings with former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While many former Confederates were allowed to simply resume normal life after the war, Johnson put a bounty on the head of the Chief Confederate — to the tune of $1.6 million in today's money.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant would be the first to tell you that he wasn't the best President, but he was dedicated to the rights and principles of the United States and its Constitution. From the moment he took office, he advocated for voting rights for every man (yes, just men), but specifically extended it to the newly-freed African-Americans and Native Americans. But a new terrorist group in the south was trying to disrupt that effort — the Ku Klux Klan.
Grant created the badass-sounding Department of Justice whose sole purpose (back then) was to enforce Reconstruction laws by any means necessary — along with Federal troops and U.S. Marshals. He actually appointed former Confederate officer Amos Ackerman as the first Attorney General. Ackerman indicted 3,000 Klansmen and convicted 600 offenders. He also forced thousands of other to flee Georgia, fearing for their freedom. That was just the first year. Grant had no problem sending U.S. troops to the south to enforce Federal laws.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Don't let that cold stare fool you. Beneath it is actual ice.
Hayes was a wounded Civil War vet who rose to the highest office in a controversial deal that ended Reconstruction and cast doubt on Hayes' legitimacy. All that aside, Hayes still expended every possible effort to welcome newly-freed former slaves and Native Americans into U.S. Citizenship.
Hayes' most American moment came when he, General William T. Sherman, and their wives travel West on the Transcontinental Railroad, physically bringing the country closer together by becoming the first sitting president to travel west of the Rocky Mountains.
James A. Garfield
At this point, you pretty much have to be a Civil War veteran to get elected.
The 20th President was only President for a few months before he was shot in the back on a train. But in those months, Garfield devised a plan to increase the prestige (and pocketbook) of the United States through increased trade, a planned canal across Panama, and a new look for an expanded U.S. Navy that would protect American merchant vessels while challenging the supremacy of the British Fleet.
But he was shot in the back on a train.
Chester A. Arthur
No one ever grows Chester A. Arthur beards anymore. This needs to change.
Arthur was a longtime fan of political patronage, especially in the corrupt political system that existed in New York City during his age. Even though he came to power unelected, he still determined to change this. Inexplicably, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the civil service "spoils system," in place since the age of Andrew Jackson, was the one to change it.
Under the new system, civil service in the United States became a meritocracy. Arthur forced resignations and even had the Justice Department try to convict the worst offenders of the corrupt spoils system. In its place, a civil service examination requirement was passed and Arthur created a special board of former rivals to ensure its enforcement and expansion.
Grover Cleveland #1
It takes a big man to get elected when the other party is dominant. Advantage: Cleveland.
Cleveland was a Democrat elected during a period of Republican domination of American politics. As a President, he understandably used the executive veto power more than anyone else until that time. But what he and the Congress could agree on, they also acted on: Defending America.
Even though the United States had no real external threats at the time of Grover Cleveland's first term, the coastal defenses and U.S. Navy hadn't really seen a major upgrade since the Civil War, more than 30 years prior. After all, land wars inside the United States against native tribes had been the focus. Cleveland upgraded the coastal defenses of 27 different sites. And while the Navy received a few good new, steel ships during Arthur's administration, Cleveland ensured they were completed and ordered 16 more. The forts would last until the outbreak of World War II, while the new U.S. Navy ships would come in handy defeating Spain just a decade later.
Looking to go back in time? Check out part one.
Looking to visit the future? Check out part three.
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