Saturday, February 23, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Eight, Tough Act to Follow

So what kind of President was Martin Van Buren?

An unlucky one, by all measures.

Going off on a tangent here.  But about the reason why Presidents should be thankful they're capped to just two terms of office.  Eight years is enough time to do the work you wanted to do when you became President... and usually just right at the time you need to clear out of the Oval Office before the consequences of all the things you've done as President come due.

If a President is lucky enough to get a second term, most often than not they live to regret it: a quick check of Two-Termers find a lot of scandals and bad breaks happening in a second term.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison (the War of 1812 was in his second term), Jackson (the Nullification Crisis), Grant (getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but yeah), Cleveland (the non-consecutive counts), McKinley, Wilson, FDR's second term wasn't a hoot, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush the Lesser... yeah, second terms were a bit of downers for those guys.  We don't know what Lincoln's second term could have been (most likely fighting with Congress over Reconstruction), and Teddy Roosevelt's wasn't too bad.  (NOTE to Obama: it's NOT a given the second term is awful - Eisenhower's was weak but not too terrible, for example - so don't panic.  Not yet...).  It makes me wonder why a guy even wants to run for a second term, other than the obvious fact that Two-Termers get better ratings from historians than the One-Termers (or as Dana Carvey as Bush The Elder memorably whined "I'm a Jimmy Carter!").

So clearing out after two terms is usually a good idea.  Eight years of your agenda is more than likely going to create consequences you will be in no position to correct or fix (because it might mean conflicting with your ideology or legacy).  But what happens when you leave someone as a successor to your legacy, when you have one of your backers become President himself?

Harken to the case of Martin Van Buren, a vocal supporter of Andrew Jackson through thick and thin.  Van Buren was an ambitious sort, quickly rising in the Democratic ranks as the moral and political opposite of John C. Calhoun (considering how much of a bastard Calhoun was, that wasn't too hard).  When social scandal rocked Washington (the Eaton Affair), Van Buren sided with Jackson's faction and pretty much solidified himself as Jackson's heir to the office.  Being Vice President during Jackson's second term - to Calhoun's chagrin - didn't hurt.

But what happened to Van Buren's term of office should stand as a warning to any who seek to follow in a Two-Termer's footsteps. The bills of Jackson's tenure came due during Van Buren's, and given Van Buren's temperament in office he was incapable of moving past the restrictions of his predecessor's legacy, dooming his own term.

One thing Van Buren was NOT was an Active-Positive: Van Buren demonstrated no flexibility or skill in compromise in office to cope with the Panic of 1837, marking him with a clear Negative trait.  Given that he did pursue various actions, but without the political savvy to finesse them through a divided Congress, this leaves Van Buren as a decent candidate to be labeled an Active-Negative President.

When you look at Van Buren's response to the economic depression caused by the Panic, you'll see the Uncompromising belief system.  He did ask for Congress to form an independent Treasury office for government to handle its revenues rather than rely on the banks (the cause of the speculation and much of the Panic's origins), and he did argue for government to print paper money to counter some of the effects of the specie (over-reliance on gold and silver coinage) affecting the downturn.  But he argued against more pro-active measures to aid the individuals most affected by the depression: the Panic caused vast unemployment and personal debt that couldn't get paid, and there were thousands in dire need of direct aid.  Van Buren, sticking to the strict discipline of constitutional restraint, did not see any constitutional powers to create such relief for the citizenry.

The other problem was that Van Buren was no master of horse-trading or coercion, two of the more effective means of getting Congress to do anything a President wants.  Even with a Congress leaning Democratic during the early stages of the Panic, the proposals Van Buren offered went nowhere (it didn't help that Van Buren was not fully in control of the Democrats: Calhoun for example was still a player and like all bastards Calhoun was vengeful).  When the Whigs - the rising opposition to Jacksonian Democrats - gained elective power by 1838 it made things harder for Van Buren.

And so, Van Buren got the blame for the Panic and the prolonged depression that followed.  He ran for re-election but became a One-Termer President, and the model for any Chosen Successor President doomed to One-Term Infamy: Carvey, Bush the Elder was NOT a Jimmy Carter (who was more a John Adams).  Bush the Elder was a Van Buren.  Which is still not a good legacy to claim.  The one legacy Van Buren COULD claim with any happiness is that he's the popular origin of the American word "okay".

Next up: the President who most likely can't be listed in ANY Character category at all. For a very good reason...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Atlantic Just Reminded Me This Is an Anniversary Year

Being a little bit distracted by such things as job-hunting and moving to new job, it took a link I got today from a friend to a photolog on The Atlantic's website of major events of 1963.

That was a huge year in a lot of ways.  The Civil Rights movement that started in earnest back in the mid-1950s was in high gear by 1963: King's "I Have A Dream" speech, the Birmingham protests, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the bombing of a church killing four girls.  The fighting in Vietnam picking up, and political upheaval leading up to a military coup.  The space race now with a woman cosmonaut going up.  Two James Bond movies.  Two Beatles albums.  A television show on the BBC about a gent and some companions traveling the universe in a blue box.  And then JFK in Dallas.

So expect a lot of anniversary notices to come and go.  Mostly go, I might lose track of things now I'm working full-time (yes I will keep bragging about this for the next four years to overcompensate).

Oh, and this is also the 150th year anniversary of 1863, a big year of American History with the Civil War ongoing.  Expect me to get all fangirly near about July 2nd (Day Two of Gettysburg)...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Seven, With All Apologies to Bill Brasky

All of this leads to a rather troublesome dilemma:  Is a badass still a badass if he doesn't always do the right thing? - Badass of the Week guy (aka "Amazing Ben Johnson")

Pardon my Swedish, but Andrew Jackson was a sunofabeech (I'll be more clear about the sentiment towards the end).

Just take all of the crazy things done by Bill Brasky (even hunting down the Banana Splits), trade in Andrew Jackson's name, and you've pretty much got an idea of what Andrew Jackson's done.

The nicest things I can say about Jackson are 1) he dearly loved his wife and 2) he taught his parrot how to swear in two different languages.  I'd throw in that he stared down an even bigger SOB in John C. Calhoun during the Nullification Crisis, but that's like choosing between having someone hit your head with a frying pan over having someone hit your head with a heavier frying pan.

So what kind of Presidential character did Jackson possess?

Jackson more neatly fits the Active-Negative traits of a President far better than his predecessor John Quincy Adams.  Jackson as Compulsive is easy to note when you look at what he did as President.  Note above all Jackson's habits toward being Uncompromising and having anger management issues.

The anger management issues were pretty noticeable even to his followers: Jackson's entire backstory is one big fight after another.  A child solider of the Revolution, he was captured by the British and roughly treated, himself slashed at the head and arm by a British officer who tried to get Jackson to polish his boots.  That his brothers died (one in battle, one to illness in captivity) as well as his mother (who pledged to work as a nurse for the British to free her sons, and then died while treating a cholera outbreak) pretty much made Jackson hate the Brits for life.  Orphaned, he moved to the then-frontier of Tennessee carving out a career as a landowner, farmer (which grew into slave-owning)  and backwoods lawyer (back then formal training and a degree was hard to come by).  He got involved in the border wars against various Indian tribes rising up against expanding settlers, gaining battlefield experience and military rank up to General by the War of 1812 and his famous defense of New Orleans at war's end.  By then he'd developed some hatred towards the Natives as well.

Another sign of Jackson's anger was the numerous duels, of challenges offered and received.  He's close to owning the record number of duels in American history (the number varies between thirteen and somewhere in the hundreds) and is the only President to have killed a man in a duel.  Legend has it Jackson got so bored during a Cabinet meeting he dug out a dueling bullet from his arm and mailed it back to the guy who put it there writing "I believe this is yours."

His blunt and candid nature was something that made him less than popular among the political elite of the nation, but made him a favorite of the common people.  So when 1824 rolled around and he ran for the President - with his background as state judge, Congressman, General and War Hero, Senator, and all-around badass - he won a solid majority of voters and states.  But not enough to win the Electoral vote, throwing the results into the House of Representatives where to Jackson's ire the victory went to John Quincy Adams.

Jackson became the first man to openly campaign for the presidency a full four years before the following election (Screw Protocol was one of his mottoes).  It turned 1828 into one of the nastiest personal mud-fights for the office in electoral history.  It didn't help that Jackson's marriage to his beloved wife Rachel decades earlier happened when the couple thought her abusive then-husband had finalized a divorce: He hadn't, and had convinced a friend to trick the couple into thinking that.  Once the couple married, the first husband leveled the charge of bigamy at Jackson - who by that time was a growing political figure in Tennessee - and created the first political burr under Jackson's saddle.  By 1828 that bigamy accusation - while already known to most and already considered resolved when Rachel made her own divorce proceedings (the first in Tennessee's history) - was used as a sledgehammer against Jackson by Adams' supporters.  Jackson still won in a landslide - the number of eligible voters between 1824 and 1828 had expanded from propertied men to all non-slave men, and Jackson was hugely popular with the masses - but the stress of the mudslinging drove poor Rachel to illness and death.  Jackson grieved and swore to never forgive his enemies.

Jackson's presidency was one of political conflict, especially as Jackson came into office as a Populist figure and derisive of the egalitarian leadership that had forged Washington political circles.  Jackson's compulsive nature led him to push for what were radical changes to how government was operating up til then.  He imposed a Spoils system of granting federal jobs to party loyalists, arguing that to the victorious go the spoils.  He pushed against the federalist-themed American System of Henry Clay's - his enemy from 1824 and 28 elections - by opposing any federally-backed roads or canals programs that didn't involve multi-state involvement.  And he broke the Banking system of the United States - the one based on Hamilton's economic planning and backed even by anti-banking figures such as Thomas Jefferson - by ending the National Bank and replacing it with state-level banks operating by different rules.

In each case Jackson's actions were relatively pro-active and could have labeled him as an Active-Positive because like an A-P type he never realized the consequences of those actions.  The Spoils system quickly broke down into a corrupt mess with incompetent party hacks getting cushy jobs.  And while breaking the Bank created an economic boom of sorts with increasing speculation and credit for business expansion, Jackson's follow-up move to force those banks to deal with specie - gold and silver coinage only, aka Hard currency - caused those state banks to fail, creating the nation's first Depression via the Panic of 1837.

What keeps Jackson in the A-N ranks was the compulsive nature behind each of those moves.  Whereas the A-Ps are cheerfully causing reforms in a current system in the belief that good things will follow, the A-N reform efforts are done solely out of the belief that the current system is bad and any changes need to happen no matter what: the changes Jackson pushed were reactions, not actions.

Two more things that harks to Jackson's compulsive and uncompromising nature: his handling of the Nullification Crisis, and the Indian Removal Act.

During John Quincy Adams' tenure he had succeeded in passing a high tariff that Southern states found too stifling and protective of northern interests.  It was hoped that Jackson's election in 1828 would end it, but Jackson and his backers didn't focus too much on it, fighting other battles such as breaking the National Bank.  By 1832 this became a crisis: Calhoun - serving at the time as Jackson's Veep as Jackson needed his power base to win the 1828 election - resigned his office so he could run as a Senate candidate to push his Nullification beliefs.  Jackson, seeing the growing woes and knowing how much of a bastard Calhoun was, finally got around to getting a reduced tariff voted in.  It wasn't enough for Calhoun and his state, and so South Carolina held a state convention that deemed both tariffs unconstitutional.

Jackson for all of his States' Rights ways was still an ardent Unionist and knew the nullification movement was an attempt at disunion.  He retaliated in three ways: he got passed a Force Act that gave him impunity in dealing with any state trying to ignore the federal government's authority to tax and regulate.  And then he sent ships to South Carolinian ports to back it up.  And he privately threatened to hang every nullification backer (hint: Calhoun) from the highest trees he could find.

A compromised tariff - backed by Clay, one of the politicos who lived to make deals - was reached relatively quickly and both sides cooled off.  But there's a reason why Jackson openly left the presidency with two regrets: "That I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun."

The Force Act and other responses by Jackson were clear signs of his A-N nature: A-Ns lean towards imposing force to get what they want for both good or ill.  But the Indian Removal Act and the fallout from that were even more obvious signs.

From the start of Jackson's tenure he had pushed for the removal of native tribes from the eastern states - especially the southeastern states from land slave-owners and farmers coveted - towards the more sparse western territories where settlers had yet to reach.  While in theory such removals were to be "voluntary", in fact and practice the removals were enforced through bullying and in some cases outright fraud.  The state of Georgia in particular passed a series of laws making it harder for the resident Cherokee to stay there.  The Supreme Court ruled against one of the harsher laws in Worcester v. Georgia but in the end little could be done to stop what Jackson started (Jackson apocryphally said "Justice Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it", but in truth the ruling never involved Jackson).  A lot of solid Jacksonians - notably Davy Crockett - were against the removals, but Jackson himself really didn't seem to care one whit.  To him it was a removal of troublesome forces - he had dealt harshly with the Natives of the southeastern states during his military years - and more land for white Americans to buy up.

What he sired was the Trail of Tears: one of the United States' more blighted spots of infamy in history, equal to the internment of Japanese-American civilians during World War II and second only to America's tragedy of race-based slavery.  That quote above from the Badass of the Week site manger Ben Johnson is drawn straight from this infamy: thousands of Natives died during their long march out to the Midwest, and Jackson didn't care.

It doesn't change the fact that Andrew Jackson was a badass - of the Presidents, only Theodore Roosevelt can claim greater badassery - but it does explain why I view Jackson as a sonofabitch.  And I wasn't the only one: an entire political party - the Whigs - formed based on simple pure hatred of Jackson the person and President.

There have been worse Presidents, some more destructive than what Jackson had done.  And Jackson did stand for the nation's unity in the face of southern nullification efforts.  But very few have been as complete a son-of-a-bitch as this guy.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wouldn't You Know It, the Busiest Weekend of My Life...

...and I miss out on the huge news of the Pope resigning to make way for a hyperspace bypass to make way for yet another groomed arch-conservative Cardinal who's going to use the Second Vatican Council decisions as toilet paper.  Maybe...

How much of this is due to the declining health of Benedict XVI - and how much is due to the fact that as Cardinal Ratzinger he presided over the investigations of hundreds of increasingly public revelations of pedophile behavior of priests some of which remained under wraps in defiance of other law enforcement agencies' attempts to bring about charges - remains to be seen.  In truth, the Pope wasn't a young man when he took the office back in 2005 anyway: also in truth, it's hurting the Church's claim to moral certainty when they've been implicated in massive cover-ups and allowances of child rape to continue even after the pedophile priests were identified and confirmed, and that the current Pope for good or ill had a hand in the internal affairs.

The Church will hold its Papal conclave by the end of the month.  If they can find a Pope willing to confront the truth of the sexual abuse, and willing to recognize that certain traditions that allow pedophiles to flourish in their organiztion need to pass on, then best of luck and God Bless.  But Benedict and his predecessor Pope John Paul II spent a lot of decades purging out the more liberal bishops and cardinals, leaving the more conservative (and the ones less likely to accept reform) as likely Popes.  And this sexual abuse mess has reached every corner of their institution... finding a bishop or cardinal free of the taint would be truly a stroke of God's Blessing...

P.S. Is this gonna screw up stuff like Ash Wednesday or anything?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Six, The Gathering Storm

I'm a little swamped this week, so if we're looking at President Numero Six-o, that would be John Quincy Adams and... okay, let's just label him Active-Negative and such.  Gotta keep packing!  Gotta get movin' on!


(gets gang-pressed back into service) Damn it all! Fine... I'll give you more info...

The Election of 1824 remains THE original controversial Presidential election (the elections of 1876 and 2000 may be more controversial, but 1824 is definitely in the Top Five).  Unlike 1800, where the controversy was over Jefferson or Burr being the true choice on a party ticket, 1824 was the first time the Electoral system worked the way the Founders intended.  A divided result between a multitude of candidates each of them with enough Electoral votes to prevent one from winning it all.

Why is this a bad thing?  Because the Founders wanted the choice for President to be decided by the House of Representatives, not the voting public: they wanted results that would not leave a clear Electoral winner and leave the choice of the Executive to Congress.  The Founders felt it was a check and balance by having the President owe his office to Congress' largess.  They also figured the House would be smart enough to choose the winner based on the guy who got the most votes anyway: they just wanted Congress to have a final say, a seal of approval as it were.

What the Founders failed to realize was that the partisan nature of the House by this time would create factions favoring one side or fearing another.  And it didn't help that one of the FOUR candidates for President from the SAME PARTY - this was before primaries took over caucuses as the means of winnowing down party choices to one clear candidate - was an ambitious mofo by the name of Henry Clay.

The results were that Andrew Jackson won 11 states, 99 Electoral, and 41 percent of the popular vote.  John Q. won 7 states, 84 Electoral, and 30 percent.  William Crawford of Georgia - once viewed as Monroe's most able successor, but suffering from failing health hurting his support - was third with only 2 states, 41 Electoral and 11 percent.  Clay was fourth with 3 states, 37 Electoral and 13 percent (the Electoral is the count that matters at this point).  Clay was clearly out of the running, but he had enough pull in the House to switch his supporters over to the candidate he preferred: John Quincy Adams.  Clay agreed with Adams on most arguments, and felt his viewpoint and power base would nurture and grow under an Adams' tenure.

Problem was, Andrew Jackson had more public support, and more states.  Adams came into office under the worst of circumstances: a minority President (not an ethnic minority, but a minority in terms of voter numbers, think Benjamin Harrison, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) with only 30 percent of the nation as his voter base.  And with an angry, vindictive sonofabitch like Jackson screaming on the sidelines about a "Corrupt Bargain".  It didn't help that Clay accepted Adams' offer to be Secretary of State, which at the time was the stepping stone to becoming President.

Why did Adams Junior (son of John Adams, making him the first President to follow in a relative's footsteps) even consider offering Clay a prominent Cabinet seat, knowing full well Jackson was out there ready to pounce on anything that reeked of a deal (there has never been any physical or eyewitness evidence that Clay and Adams bargained for the results)?  As smart as Adams was - he read, spoke four languages (at least), and was one of the brightest foreign policy minds of the era - he had to know giving Clay any sign of a prize would rile up Jackson's side of the aisle.  But he still offered (that Clay accepted is moot to the argument: this is Clay we're talking about, and Clay was an ambitious man).

This is the only solid evidence of John Quincy (should I go with John Q. or John Quincy?  Typing out his full name is gonna be overlong) being a Compulsive character, the key trait of an Active-Negative.  A better word would be Uncompromising.  He probably felt Clay was the best choice for State and that was that, and to hell with Jackson's ire.

There is little else to report about John Q.'s administration.  He openly noted he was serving at the displeasure of the majority of citizens (and Congress) and did what he could to work with Congress to pass ambitious public projects such as a national university and more public roads and canals.  Some of the canal projects were passed but nearly everything else John Q. attempted to get through Congress failed.  The congressional blocking crimped his foreign policy endeavors as well.  In the face of growing settler unrest in the Mississippi areas against native tribes already living there, Adams did what he could to enforce existing treaties to protect those tribes, which upset the expansionist factions in the Democratic-Republican party (i.e. Andrew Jackson).

But there was little else John Q. could do.  Political opposition in Congress was fierce, and Jackson essentially became the first man to begin running for the Presidency a full FOUR YEARS before the next election.  The uncompromising nature of Congress can have an outside effect on the President's actions: much of the Negative (or limited enforcement of powers) of John Q.'s administration was external rather than internal.  This kind of makes it hard to truly gauge John Quincy Adams for the character charts as an Active-Negative.  I'm leaning that way because of how he handled the Electoral crisis and opening himself up to public ridicule by his enemies.

Next up: work!  I'm off to work on Monday!  Voot!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Difference Between a Recession and a Depression

The truism is that when your neighbors lose their jobs, it's a recession: when YOU lose your job, it's a depression.

The last 5 years, however, has kind of skewed that joke.  Which really isn't all that funny when you consider the hell you and your neighbors are going through trying to find solid work.

The normal turn-around on losing a job and finding a new one tended to be less than six months (if you couldn't find anything in six months you were looking in the wrong places).  This prolonged economic downturn, however, saw a turn-around rate averaging a year, maybe more.  I personally knew of fellow unemployed who were struggling to find even part-time employ (no benefits, not enough income) for more than a year.

I personally struggled to find full-time employment for more than 4 years.  Part-time work came and went and was hard to find (and keep): for all of 2011 I had no employment at all.  And I was putting in for five to ten jobs a week.  The simple reason was that there were few jobs being created in the first place... with each new opening getting swarmed with 60 to 150 applicants within two days of the posting.  I once handed my resume to an HR person speaking at the Career Center for a position that my research background fit to a tee that the HR person mentioned just opened the day before... only to have her tell me she'd already gotten 75 applicants for that spot.

So, from where I was sitting - where my family was coping along with me, doing what they could to help out, and all the burdens they've had to bear - this Great Recession felt like a Depression.

This is a very long-winded setup for the good news.  I finally found a full-time job.  They really liked my resume: they really liked me.  I'll be doing what I like: helping people find books and research materials and getting into computer usage.

I would joke - and I have, elsewhere - that our long national nightmare... is over.  Except, well, it's not over.

We're still a nation mired in a jobless economic recovery.  Unemployment may be hovering around 7.9 percent (official number: the unofficial unemployment numbers are always a lot worse... and always more accurate) which is better than the 10 percent and worse that it had been at the deepest part of the 2009 valley, but that's not normal.  Unemployment should ever be around 4 percent for the economy to be chugging along just fine: an unemployment rate of 2 percent is a strong economy.

We need more action from government to spur businesses to use their profits to grow and hire on more people.  We need to stop the wave of cutbacks in the public sector which is hurting that job sector: if our states, counties, and federal government weren't cutting back on their workforce, the unemployment rate would be a full percent less than it is now.  We need a jobs bill.

Meantime, to all my fellow job-seekers.  I may be employed but I stand with you.  Good luck finding work.  Really good luck to you all.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What Is Needed To Fix Florida's (and the Nation's) Voting Woes

The finger-pointing and arguing over the debacle that was the 2012 elections process - hundreds of thousands discouraged from voting due to long lines, those long lines due to ballots being 4-12 pages long (!) - has begun in earnest, but instead of finger-pointing we need to - as a state and as a nation - make these very important reforms to ease voter access and improve voter rights.

1) We need to get ALL eligible people who can vote registered to vote.
2) We need to make it easier for people to vote, period.  That means giving them the ability to vote wherever they can on election day or during pre-election early voting days.  People get confused by being required to vote by precinct or specific location which sometimes are miles away while a perfectly good precinct is right down the block, and some people have moved since their last registered address and trying to vote from a new address.  Same-Day voter registration updating the voter's proper address to allow them to vote right away.  Creating a uniform balloting system that identifies the voter's district needs and prints (or electronically displays) the proper ballot - something elections offices here in Florida can do during Early Voting polling - can reduce the need to vote at a specific (and oft-times overwhelmed) precinct: just think of all those voting lines in Dade County that could have been eased by sending voters to nearby polling places that weren't overwhelmed.
3) We need to drop the ban on ex-felons denied the right to vote, and forcing them to re-register to get their right to vote restored.  This should be an automatic thing: they've legally paid their debt to society, once out of prison the ex-felon should have the right to act like a citizen again as part of their probationary/ rehabilitative process.  Having the ex-felons jump through years' worth of bureaucratic hoops is insulting.
4) We need to drop gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering literally wastes people's votes.
5) A Photo ID for voting actually does make sense, alongside the signature requirement when showing up to vote.  But the states need to issue such photo IDs at no cost: voting needs to be free in every way possible.
6) We need to have more Early Voting days, not fewer.
7) We need to move Election Day from a Tuesday - the middle of a workweek - to a weekend day like Friday or Saturday or Sunday.  AND make the Election Day a national holiday.  Back in the old days when voting was done at the county seat and people had to travel by horse or foot, it may have made sense to have elections on a workday when people would be at the county seat on other business.  But not anymore.  We need to make sure people can get to vote, and making the Big Election a banking/school holiday nearest to the weekend frees up a ton of people to give them all day to get out the vote.
8) We need to include a None Of The Above option for every candidate.  It will get messy but if all candidates for an elected office are just disgusting human beings, the voters should have the right to say No to the offal the parties are shoving at them.  It should make the parties' more responsive (maybe).

Any other suggestions?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Five, The Unknown

Getting a little metaphorical here, so I'll explain.

I've gotten interested in tracking Presidential Character through reading the work on that topic by James David Barber.  Thing is, his go-to source Presidential Character: The Novel only covers most of the 20th Century Presidents (up to, just barely, Bush the Elder 1988-92).  He briefly describes the first four Presidents - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison - only because they ironically provided near-perfect examples of the four character types - Passive-Negative, Active-Negative, Active-Positive, Passive-Positive - Barber charts.  The first four are Introductories.

Which meant by the fifth guy on the hit list - James Monroe - anyone going by Barber to determine Presidential Character of any of the Presidents before Teddy Roosevelt was going to have to do a ton of original research.  /headdesk  Until we get to Roosevelt, most of these upcoming character reviews are delving into the Unknown.

Another reason why I'm using the word "Unknown" is due to the fact that Monroe is one of those forgotten Presidents.  When people think of Presidents in historical thought they jump to the usual suspects of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts.  Maybe Grover Cleveland only because he provides humor in non-consecutive jokes.  In terms of contemporary history Eisenhower and upward are remembered due to the fact people alive today remember living during their tenures (and because, Tricky Dick, we are never going to forget you /damned with faint praise).  But this means a large number of 19th Century Presidents get overlooked by the general populus: notable exceptions would be Andrew Jackson (who noticeably contributed to the term Jacksonian politics dominating most of the century) and James K. Polk (helps to have a They Might Be Giants song named after ya... and a million screaming Mexicans mad at ya).

It doesn't help that a majority of "bad" (read: ineffective) Presidents ruled during the 19th Century, rendering that part of American History a bit of a slog to study through.  When nearly every historical interest of that era gravitates toward the giant black hole that is THE CIVIL WAR (seriously, go to any public library in the U.S.  The largest non-fiction shelf section outside of cookbooks is gonna be the 973.7 shelves), the rest of the century suffers.

And it also doesn't help Monroe's case that he became President at the least conflicted moment in American political debate.  Which is a shame because as one of the rare two-term Presidents of the 19th Century, and as one of the Active-Positive Presidents of the era, Monroe does deserve a lot more interest from historians.  At least a lot more interest than in Grover Cleveland (and the non-consecutive joke is deployed.  Ta-daaa).

Labeling Monroe as an A-P is risky because I'm not going by any established research from Barber.  I'm basing my estimate of Monroe as this because he proved throughout his career an Adaptive and energetic role in a lot of major moments in history leading up to and during his Presidential tenure.

Monroe was the last of the recognized Founding Fathers to become President.  He served as a young man in Washington's army during the Revolution.  He became a protege of Jefferson's, serving in various duties when Jefferson worked as Governor of Virginia.  Although he opposed the Constitution as it formed a too-strong central government by his estimates, he became an active part of that new government by becoming one of the first Senators of the first constitutional Congress.  Serving his own stint as Governor of Virginia, he then moved on to working for Jefferson's administration and was sent as a diplomat to France... right at the time Napoleon was offering up the Louisiana Territory for dirt-cheap (literally) price.

Flashback to my article on Jefferson regarding the Louisiana Purchase: yes the final decision - and the rule-breaking to make that decision - was Jefferson's to make in his own A-P character.  But Monroe was the guy on the ground: it was up to Monroe to decide right there in France whether or not to pursue Napoleon's offer.  This was in the time of long-distance communication taking months: there was no immediate input from Jefferson or the U.S. government telling Monroe what to do.  So Monroe, adapting to the situation, made the decision: he saw the opportunity for more territory, the chance of removing a European power from meddling in the western hemisphere, and the value of land being sold for 3 pennies per acre (seriously, that's dirt-cheap).  Sending his colleagues back to Washington DC as quick as possible, Monroe stayed on in France securing the first steps in making the deal before Napoleon - notoriously impulsive - changed his mind.

The next clue to Monroe's character trait came during the War of 1812.  Under Madison's poor management of the war effort, things were not looking so good for the home team.  Right after the British invasion that led to the burning of the nation's capital - our lowest point - Monroe, then serving as Secretary of State, asked Madison to let him serve as Secretary of War (since no one wanted the Sec of State job Monroe continued at that task, making him the only person to serve multiple Cabinet posts at the same time).    Under Monroe's guidance, the army got better organized.  By this time, effective generals had been found - mostly through the weeding process of bad generals getting captured, killed or fired - and enough victories were had to let Americans feel the war ended as a victory for the nation (let's be fair: it was a tie between Great Britain and the U.S., and a moral victory for Canada).

As one of the heroes of the War of 1812, Monroe was a near unanimous choice to run for President in 1816 (albeit because most Democratic-Republican rivals took each other out of the equation).  Having looked to Monroe's background to demonstrate his Active-Positive values, what does his Presidency demonstrate?

Monroe made the most of the "Active" part of being an Active-Positive.  He was the first President to extensively tour the nation while in office.  And while the tours had the appearance of "jubilees" and celebrations, Monroe did use these tours to talk policy matters with the citizenry: he took the tours seriously as part of his presidential duties.  His other Active behaviors included selecting competent men for Cabinet posts that best suited them - John Quincy Adams to State, John C. Calhoun (that bastard, but smart enough to know how to organize a department) to War - after an era of less-competent men holding such offices.

The biggest piece of evidence of Monroe's Active tenure is the foreign policy stance that bears his name and remains a key foundation for all modern U.S. foreign policy (and is pretty much the only thing remembered of his tenure): The Monroe Doctrine.  During the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the colonies of Central and South America rebelled against their European overlords: with the wars in Europe over, those imperial powers - especially Spain and Russia - sought to re-conquer their lost colonies and the ones lost by a now-weakened France.  As these newly-formed nations lacked a European sponsor the way the United States had when our nation rebelled, the potential of the Central / South Americans to form their own republics were threatened.

At the urging of Adams, Monroe issued his Doctrine.  The United States would view any overseas aggression against any Central or South American nation as a threat to American sovereignty: meaning Worst Case Scenario that England - yes read on - will go to war over it.  The United States would NOT intervene in any "internal" dispute between an existing colony and their European holder: which placated Great Britain because they were the only overseas Empire to not lose most of their Central / South American colonies, and helped to get them as an unofficial co-backer of the plan.

The United States - still reorganizing after the War of 1812 - may not have been in any shape to enforce the Doctrine, but it gave political cover to Great Britain to enforce protection of their own sea-faring empire (Pax Britannica).  It had the political virtue of ensuring the nascent Latin American nations the room to build, and allowed for a gradual, progressive end of colonial rule within the Western Hemisphere.  The Doctrine also created the underlying foreign policy belief of anti-colonialism that would influence American policy to this very day.

Other Active-leaning accomplishments were creating a treaty with Great Britain defining the U.S. / Canadian border (at the time) along with dismantling all fortifications by both sides, creating one of the longest undefended borders in contemporary history (future treaties with England and Canada would lead to the U.S. / Canada we have today as the longest undefended border in human history).  I mentioned under Madison's entry last week that Great Britain traded away their holding of Florida as a far-sighted removal of a problem, but I erred to point out that their holdings were not Florida Proper (or what we know as Florida today): their holdings were the southern tips of what we now know as Alabama and Mississippi.  Spain gained control of Florida as a Spanish territory as part of the solution for the War of 1812, and as obvious as anything there was conflict over it (as England figured, smart guys the Brits).  Especially with native tribes in Florida raiding into Georgia.  Monroe's Active move was direct and controversial: he sent Andrew Jackson in as general in charge of the armies and militia in the region to defend the border, and Jackson - ooooo, is THAT guy a sonofabitch, more on him later - led raids (he argued he had the authority, but most likely the SOB's Blood Knight character was the impetus) into Florida to fight the natives, angering up Spain with a legitimate international grievance.  Whether or not Monroe signed off on Jackson's raiding, it did provide a stick to the carrot that Adams was using as Sec of State to negotiate Florida's purchase from Spain.

As for Monroe's Positive character traits, aside from the obvious relish of those national tours, Monroe reveled in the political game that being President provided him.  He worked with Congress, passing a sizable amount of legislation covering taxes and reduction of the national debt.  He presided over the period of five states being admitted to the Union, second only to (of all Presidents) Benjamin Harrison (Washington doesn't count because the thirteen original states were already part of the United States when he became President).  Monroe did veto and oppose certain forward-looking bills such as the planned Cumberland Road funding based on his Republican-Democrat ideology of strict constitutionalism.  Monroe had a hand - mostly behind-the-scenes - resolving the Missouri Compromise allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state (alongside Maine, which began the practice of balancing the addition of a slave state with a free state) and banning slavery in any future states and territories north of Missouri's southern border.

The biggest reason common historical remembrance of Monroe is forgotten today is that Monroe ruled during a literal "Era of Good Feelings."  The War of 1812 had burned away the passions for war that troubled the previous administrations.  It helped that the chaos of France's revolution and empire had ended, quieting down most foreign policy concerns.  Political partisan sniping faded into non-existence: the Federalist Party, broken by the national perception of them failing the nation during a time of war, died as a national power.  Monroe pursued an inclusive administration above all other accomplishments.  Monroe himself invited little controversy or scandal.  Monroe became the second man to run unopposed for the Presidency since Washington: only a vote for John Quincy Adams by a rogue Elector prevented Monroe from becoming the second man other than Washington to unanimously win all Electoral College votes.  It's ironic that such success makes a man forgettable: but history is more intriguing with intrigue; interest in history more focused on war and divided debate.

If there was any failing to Monroe's actions as President, it was that he failed to see the consequences of his primary goal of ending partisan strife (as noted, A-P Presidents never plan for the consequences of their acts).  He may have created an Era of Good Feelings through efforts to incorporate Federalists into government and Federalist policy into his administration, and he may have tempered the back-room struggles of his fellow Democrats over who would lead the party... but he basically put a lid on a lit powder-keg by doing so.  By leading with Federalist (pro-Union) ideology on a lot of issues, he angered up the Republican-Democratic states-rights' (which by this time devolved into Southern State dominance) believers.  By refusing to choose a successor among the obvious candidates such as Henry Clay, William Crawford, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, or even John C. Calhoun (that bastard), Monroe created the environment for his own party to shatter into factions and re-ignite partisan divisions... only this time along more geographic lines and with more rancor than before.

A possible failing for Monroe would be the Missouri Compromise.  Yes, it was a compromise over a contentious issue - the addition of a slave state further north than had been previously allowed, and in the Louisiana Territory where northerners hoped to apply the anti-slavery clauses of the Northwest Ordinance - but like all A-P actions it had consequences.  It created the "You Shall Not Pass" line for slaveowners blocking them from northerner territories but allowed them to expand to the south of that line: That encouraged the strain of Manifest Destiny that drove the United States to aggressively pursue territorial acquisition into the Texas and California regions then held by the newly forged Republic of Mexico.

Another failing - more debated (not debatable, I mean it's more talked about, actually more shouted about) - was with the Monroe Doctrine: for all its political virtue, it also engendered a vice (again, something Monroe never saw coming).  Future American governments interpreted the Doctrine to allow ourselves the power to meddle in the affairs of Central and South American governments.  After all, it never limited what the U.S. could do in our own "back yard" (and it implied that the U.S. would intermediate for foreign powers under the right circumstance).  For all the good things the Monroe Doctrine created (the gradual end of empire), it also created distrust among Latin American nations due to incursions ("filibusters") and attempted takeovers by American citizens looking to colonize for themselves.  The Doctrine also bred the fervor for Manifest Destiny - combined with the long-term failure of the Missouri Compromise - that led to conflict with Mexico.  The neoconservatives running around today crying all for military intervention everywhere - without thought of consequence and the destructiveness of war - get some of their "seeding democracy" argument from what the Monroe Doctrine sought to protect.  And nowadays, just try talking about the CIA anywhere south of the Rio Grande and see if you can avoid getting punched in the face.

There's a lot about our nation today that formed from the actions of President Monroe: it's a little disappointing how our history books don't do a better job examining Monroe's administration and its effects on the rest of 19th Century and current American history.

Some print references to follow:
Whitney, David and Whitney, Robin, American Presidents 8th Ed., Readers Digest: Pleasantville NY, 1993, p. 47 - 54

Weinberg, Neil, "Waiting in Line at Mount Rushmore: Understanding the Rankings of Presidential Greatness" (2012). Senior Honors Theses. Paper 292. p. 32 - 34

If you have access to JSTOR, see if Murray, Robert and Blessing, Tim, "The Presidential Performance Study: a Progress Report, " Journal of American History, v.70 n. 3 (Dec. 1983) p. 535-55 has anything on character.

Please comment with more research suggestions on Monroe or on Presidential Character as defined by Barber.  As I noted at the beginning, we're getting into uncharted waters here with the 19th Century Presidents...