Title: Accidental Presidents
Rating: 4 Stars
I have to admit to a weird fascination with US Presidents. Call it an early preview of growing up to be a history geek. From a young age, I liked to read presidential biographies. I became one of those weird kids that could recite the presidents in order, frontwards and backwards. I know all about the weird string of deaths of all presidents that were elected in a year ending with 0 (from 1840 to 1960). I love election stories such as when the Whig party, desperate to win the presidency at any cost, find themselves a general (William Henry Harrison) because the Democrats elected one with Andrew Jackson, and then, instead of a normal presidential campaign, just go out, have torchlight parades, and get everyone drunk on barrels of rum. Voila! Mission Accomplished!
So, this book, about the eight vice presidents that succeeded a president that died in office, is right up my alley.
Interestingly enough, the author, Jared Cohen, also shares a similar obsession. He’s not a trained historian, which is interesting because this is the second consecutive work of history written by a non historian that I’ve read (other being Americana, by Bhu Srinivasan). Cohen served as an adviser to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton in the State Department. He’s now associated with the Council on Foreign Relations and, bizarrely, is the CEO of Jigsaw, which is Google’s technology incubator.
It might just be me, but being CEO of Google’s technology future would seem to be kind of a full time job, but as he says in his author’s note, as a child he had a similar obsession to presidential facts that I had, and so somehow managed to find the time to write a pretty heavily researched 400 page history.
Some of the critical review feedback that I encountered regarding this book was that it was somehow lacking a central theme. Well, it talks about eight different at best tangentially related historical events, so I’m not exactly sure what is expected here. It’s not like there was some great Masonic conspiracy to off poorly performing presidents.
If there is a theme, it’s the somewhat stunning unpreparedness that our country has for possible succession crises. In fact, it really wasn’t cleared up until the 25th amendment was passed in 1967. Interestingly enough, maybe there’s some voodoo in that amendment because no president has died in office since its passage. Before that, there was about a 25% chance that a president would die in office.
During those early days, it was kind of a shit show. When the first president died (the aforementioned William Henry Harrison), it was spelled out that the vice president would assume the duties. But it was not clear if the vice president would actually become president or would just be some ad-hoc acting president.
Another weird oddity was that once a vice president succeeded to the presidency, there was no provision to get another vice president. That post just went vacant for the rest of the term. So, if the new president subsequently died in office, then what? Well, back in the day, it then devolved to the Speaker of the House or the President pro tempore of the Senate. That seems logical, but what if the congress is not in session? There were several times in our history where, if the newly promoted president had died, that there was no clear succession. The founding fathers, for all of their genius, just really couldn’t be bothered with the minutiae of succession.
John Tyler, who was Harrison’s vice president, was at best a suspect Whig, so Harrison’s cabinet was definitely on the side of acting president. However, Tyler was having none of it. He declared himself president, took the presidential oath of office, and would refuse all correspondence that was not specifically addressed to the president. If nothing else, then we owe some kind of debt to Tyler for at least setting that precedent.
Tyler was interesting in that he also prefigured the conflict that often arose when a vice president took over. On the one hand, it was the president that was actually elected president, which would seem to imply that the people chose that president’s policies. On the other hand, the new president now has the office and has the authority to chart a new direction. Specifically for Tyler, he was definitely against some of the key Whig policies such as a federal bank and internal improvements (eg canals and such), thinking they were intrusions upon state rights. Imagine the frustration of the Whig party, having majorities in both the house and senate and having elected a president but having their signature bills vetoed by a Whig president that assumed office via accident.
It was a similar case with Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson gets a really bad rap today, and looking at his subsequent presidential actions, selecting him as vice president seems crazy (ie a Southern Democrat). However, Johnson, during The Civil War, was actually kind of a hero. From his home state of Tennessee, he bravely stood on the side of the Union. He took progressive stances on slave freedom. He was a supporter of black rights. Tennessee actually seceded and it was Johnson that led the effort to bring it back into the US. He actually seemed to be a reasonable choice.
However, once The Civil War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson assumed the presidency, he saw that the threat to the unity of the US was over and so reverted back to his racist beliefs. Although the Republicans had great hope that he would continue to support their agenda, he vetoed much of the Republican legislation and pardoned thousands of Southern war leaders (ones that he had vowed to hang during The Civil War). By the end of his term, much of the antebellum Southern leadership was restored.
There was awkwardness around a couple of the assassinations. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth had actually left a note for Andrew Johnson at his hotel the day before Lincoln was shot. When the decidedly insane Charles Guiteau assassinated James Garfield, he claimed to be a Stalwart (Chester Arthur’s Republican contingent) and said he did it so that Chester Arthur could be president. Awkward!
In both cases conspiracy theorists tried to use this information to implicate Johnson and Arthur. This is specially humorous in the case of Arthur. Arthur was a guy that just wanted to eat fine food, drink fine wine, and hand out cushy assignments to buddies. He had never previously been elected to any office and had zero desire to be president. When he was told that Garfield had finally died (it took like three months of medical malpractice to actually kill him), Arthur broke into hysterical tears.
Interestingly enough, although he’ll never be top tier, despite incredibly low expectations, Arthur actually acquitted himself fairly well. Despite being a product himself of the spoils system, he continued Garfield’s primary priority of civil service reform. He also signed the bill that launched the modernization of the navy (the so-called ABCD ships).
I want to leave with two more facts that I learned. I have no idea what they mean. Probably they mean nothing, but I found them to be very cool.
The first president that received written death threats was Andrew Jackson (he was also the first target of an assassination attempt, after the assassin’s guns misfired, Jackson somewhat hilariously attacked him with his cane; Jackson had to be pulled off him). One letter said that the writer will cut Jackson’s throat while he’s sleeping and that he should be burnt at the stake. The author of the letter was Junius Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s father.
Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt. One of his great-great grandfathers was John Tyler’s brother. This is such a strange country. It’s odd to think that there is a fairly direct descendant relationship between two vice presidents that assumed the presidency upon their predecessor’s death. It’s even more strange to contemplate that one of them came from a prominent slave holding family in Virginia and the other came from a small town in Missouri. What are the odds?
I could go on. This is already a long post, so I’ll cut it short. As a presidential history geek, I found all of this to be fascinating.