Tuesday, June 7, 2016

James K. Polk: The Last Jacksonian President

Andrew Jackson was a bold "champion of the common man."  So when he was elected in a landslide victory in 1828, he gave birth to a movement that became known as the Jacksonian Movement or the Jacksonian Democracy.  So while he was the first, the last Jacksonian President was James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States.

He was born in North Carolina, and as a young lawyer from Tennessee, and later state legislator, he became good friends with Andrew Jackson.  Later, as a member of the House of Representatives, Polk was a big supporter in Jackson's fight against the Second Bank of the United States. He was Speaker of the House from 1835-1839, only leaving to become governor of Tennessee.  As a Jacksonian Democrat with the support of Andrew Jackson, he was in a prime position to becoming a future president.

Like Jackson, Polk was a huge supporter of expansion, and he believed the United States should annex Texas (a popular idea in the South) and claim Oregon (a popular idea in the North). He also supported acquiring California.

It should be understood here that Polk did understand that slavery was a big issue at the time.  However, he was a slave owner, and he believed slavery was made legal by the Constitution, and a solid boundary had been created with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and so to him slavery was not an issue.

Still, Polk believed new territories in New Mexico and California should not allow slavery.  So, regardless of what he was thinking about this issue, it was not going to be resolved by adding new territory -- rather, it would only get worse.  So, while his ambitions should have been considered an overall good thing and cause for excitement, it only added tensions between the North and South.

Still, he had no ambitions (that were known publicly anyway) of becoming the presidential nominee when he attended the 1844 democratic convention.  Rather, he had fully supported Martin Van Buren, and was hoping to become his Vice President.

Van Buren, however, had trouble gaining enough support from western democrats, who yearned for the immediate annexation of Texas.  Since Polk did support the annexation, they gave their support to him instead.  Van Buren, being a good sport, gave his delegates to Polk, who in turn won the nomination.

So, Polk correctly positioned himself in a spot where he gained a lot of support.  He correctly understood the modern wave of support for expansion, or "Manifest Destiny," and he ran the wave of this support to becoming his parties nominee.

In this way, Polk became what many now refer to as the first Dark Horse Candidate, or the first candidate to come seemingly out of nowhere to earn his parties nomination for president.

As a candidate he made his goals quite clear:  He wanted to settle the Oregon Territory boundary dispute with Great Britain, he wanted to acquire California, he wanted to lower tariffs, and he wanted to establish an independent treasury.  He said if he accomplished all of these goals he would not run for a second term.

The Whigs nominated Henry Clay, who had already lost bids to become president in 1824 and 1832.  Clay wanted to increase the size of the government, and he opposed the idea of annexing Texas.  Some say his efforts to strengthen his position regarding Texas alienated voters in the South and West who strongly supported the annexation. Still, he tried to pull votes from Polk by saying, "Who is James K. Polk?"

The reason the annexation of Texas was such a pressing issue was because of slavery.  Northern states had more representatives in the House, and so they maintained a stronghold there.  Southern states needed to make sure than any new states that entered the union did not throw off the balance in the Senate, where they continued to have an influence.  So the annexation of Texas was strongly supported by southern slave states.

A third candidate, James Birney, was an abolitionist who was the nominee for the Liberty party.  Enough anti-slavery Whigs in the north voted for him that he was able to garnish 2.3% of the popular vote, or enough to give the election to Polk.  James K. Polk then narrowly became the 11th president of the United States.

Before he even took office, John Tyler took the bold step of annexing Texas, and Congress voted to support the annexation.  This left Polk with a big decision of whether he wanted to go to war with Mexico or find some kind of diplomatic solution.  Of course, at the same time, his stance on Oregon risked war with Britain. So it seemed that war was almost inevitable before Polk even set foot in the White House.

Democrats wanted to claim the entire Oregon territory from the California Boundary northward to a latitude 54'40.  A common theme at the time was, "Fifty-Four-Forty or Fight."

Polk understood that nothing short of war would result in the Americans getting all this land. And neither he nor Britain wanted to go to war.  So this called for a compromise with Britain.  He offered to create a boundary between the U.S. and Canada along the 49th Parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific.

Initially the British declined this offer, and when they did so Polk claimed the entire Oregon area.  Quickly the British decided they had better take the deal.  The only exception they made was the tip of Vancouver Island.  The deal was signed in 1846.  Polk, in this way, was able to avoid war with Britain.

Now he had to deal with Texas and Mexico and California.  Polk sent an envoy to Mexico offering them $20 million (plus a settlement to claims owed to the Americans) for California and New Mexico.  No Mexican leader wanted to sign the deal, particularly considering it meant giving away half the nation.

So the envoy was not well received. So he sent Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande to increase pressure on Mexico.  The Mexicans saw this as aggression, and they in late April of 1846 they attacked Taylor's forces.

So Polk was unable to avoid war with Mexico.

Despite Northern opposition, Congress declared war. The Americans won many early victories, and by 1848 Mexico the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed, forcing Mexico to cede New Mexico and California in return for only $15 million plus the U.S. would assume any damage claims.  Another part of the treaty drew a line between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rio Grande.

Texas asked to be allowed to join the United States, and this request was accepted.

Polk was constantly bombarded by the Wilmot Proviso, a bill intended to ban slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico.  While the bill was passed the House more than once, but the Senate never supported it.

If there is any criticism of Polk, it's that he did not take up the opportunity to deal with the issue of slavery during his term.  Still, to his credit, he did set goals and he accomplished them all.  And had he made it a goal of his to resolve the slavery issue, it probably would have taken up all of his energy and he may not have accomplished his goal of expanding the nation.

So Polk had succeeded in adding a vast amount of land to the United States.  He had also accomplished his goal of lowering tariffs and creating an independent treasury.  This made him a successful president minus the slavery issue.  He had accomplished this all in only four short years.  As promised, he decided he would not run for re-election.

Indeed, he did add a lot of land to the United States.  But this would increase tensions between the North and the South, moving slavery into the forefront as the main issue in Washington.  So, as Polk left office in March of 1849, with him went the Jacksonian era -- making Polk the last of the Jacksonian Presidents.

He was succeeded into office by Zachary Taylor, a Whig and a man he despised.  Still, it was probably a good thing he did not run for re-election, as he died only three months later, in June of 1849.  He left his estate to his wife under the direction that she free their slaves.

Monday, June 6, 2016

James Monroe: The last unopposed president

James Madison (President 1817-1825) 
James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States. He would become one of the best presidents we ever had, both for his domestic and for his foreign policies. He was the last of the founding fathers to become President, and the last president to run unopposed.

He was born in 1758 in Virginia and attended the College of William and Mary. He also fought in the Continental Army, the army that was formed by the Continental Congress in 1775.  He practiced law in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

He joined the anti-Federalists in the Virginia Convention. Considering the Federalists were in favor of a large central government, this made Madison a supporter of a limited government. In other words, he was essentially a supporter of the Jeffersonian Principles, which included a limited government and strict adherence to the Constitution.

As an anti-Federalist in Virginia, he supported the ratification of the new Constitution that was mostly written by James Madison. In 1790 he was a supporter of Jeffersonian policies when he was elected as a U.S. Senator. He then served as Minister to France from 1794-1796.

During Thomas Jefferson's first term, Spain transferred New Orleans to the French. New Orleans was important to the Americans because it was used by traders as a port for shipping their products to Europe. Fear arose that the French would not allow the Americans to use the port, so Jefferson chose Monroe to go to France to broker a deal that would allow America to buy New Orleans.

When Monroe approached the French, he was surprised that Napoleon was not just willing to sell New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory. Monroe, and current Minister of France, Robert R. Livingston, would decide to agree to the deal. The United States would end up paying $15 million for 539,000,000 acres. This came to about four cents an acre. The deal nearly doubled the size of the United States, and included all or portions of 15 present U.S. states.

In 1811, Monroe was chosen by Madison to be his secretary of state.  At this time the Americans were becoming increasingly impatient with the British, and this resulted in the War of 1812. Madison actually considered asking Monroe to lead troops, although decided he was too valuable as a member of his Cabinet.

This turned to be a critical decision, because Madison's secretary of war -- William Eustis resigned, Madison named Monroe as Secretary of War.  In effect, Monroe held two cabinet position for two months before Madison named John Armstrong as the new secretary of war.

Monroe was then one of the government figures who fled Washington as the British army approached.  The British ended up eventually burning the Executive Mansion, the Library of Congress, and other government buildings.

Blame for this was on Armstrong, and so Madison once again named Monroe as secretary of war. He immediately went to work organizing a defense of Baltimore, where American forces defeated the British three weeks later.

That victory, together with another in New York, lead to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.  The treaty assured that American merchant ships would no longer be terrorized by British war ships.

Monroe's role in the war earned him widespread fame.

Monroe was looking like a quintessential presidential candidate.  Like Jefferson, he was born in Virginia, had served as secretary of state, and was a democratic-republican.

Others, however, believed it was time for a president who was from some other part of the country, and they wanted to nominate William Crawford of Georgia, who was also an ardent supporter of Jeffersonian Principles.

Regardless, on March 16, 1816, Monroe was voted (by a count of 65-54) to be the party's presidential candidate.  Crawford wasn't even chosen to be vice president, as the party chose Daniel D. Tompkins of New York.

The Federalist Party was on the verge of collapse, and so there was limited opposition to Madison.  The Federalist did nominate Rufus King, although he was a weak opponent to Madison, who won by an electoral count of 183 to 34, carrying 16 states to King's three.

Like other candidates of this era, Monroe did not campaign for president: doing so was considered impolite. Instead, campaigning was left to his supporters.  Yet while previous elections, such as the election of 1800, were very partisan and dirty, the election of 1816 was relatively calm: their was very little mudslinging.

Monroe became the fifth president of the United States.  Daniel D. Tompkins was elected vice president.

Monroe wanted to make sure his cabinet well represented the nation.  He named John C. Calhoun as Secretary of War and John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State.  He named Crawford as secretary of treasury.  He named Benjamin Crowninshield as secretary of Navy, and William Wirt as attorney General. He offered a job to Henry Clay, although he declined. Unlike previous presidents, Monroe valued his cabinet, often seeking and heeding their advice.

This era in our history is often considered the "Era of Good feelings." This is mainly because the Federalists were in decline, and the democratic-republicans were the main party, lead by Monroe. By having members of varying opinions in his cabinet, he was essentially able to adapt key ideas from both parties, and this essentially eliminated partisanship. Unfortunately, this era would only last until the end of Monroe's terms, or about 8 years.

Among the first things he did during his first term was undertake a tour of the nation.  It was later dubbed as a "goodwill tour" during "An era of good feelings."  There were no wars, although there were still signs of tensions in the country.  For instance, the territory of Missouri petitioned for statehood.  While you'd think of this as a good thing, what it did was ignite a fiery debate over whether it would be a slave or free state.

The debate would lead to the Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state and Maine (formerly a part of Massachusetts) to enter as a free state.  There were also prohibitions made on the expansion of slavery.

Monroe had to face another crisis on the border between Spanish Florida and Georgia.  Spanish pirates had established operating bases in Florida.  Seminole Indians living in Florida were raiding white settlements in Georgia, and these were often encouraged by the British. There were also complains that the Seminole were giving shelter to runaway slaves.  While this was going on, the U.S. demanded Spain control the pirates and gain control of the Indians in their land.

Tensions grew to a point that Monroe sent a small force to the region lead by the U.S. military commander of the South, and the hero of New Orleans, General Andrew Jackson.  He had permission to chase the Seminole into Florida if he needed to, and he did.  In fact, he went so far as to capture two Spanish forts and two British men he accused of encouraging the raids.  Jackson executed the men.

The British were outraged and the White House embarrassed.  Some members of Congress wanted to censure Jackson, but this never happened.  However, Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams decided Jackson had gone too far and returned the forts.  They then decided to use the incident as proof that Spain could not control the region, and offered Spain $5 million for the territory.  Spain agreed, and ceded Florida to the U.S.

Being there was no opposition to the democratic-republican party, factions were created within the party, and they started to disagree and argue with one another.  About the only thing they agreed upon was to ignore the president's agenda. This was one of the few times in American history where Congress had a lot of control over the president.

This made men like Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, very powerful.  Unlike Madison, Clay was a supporter of big government, and he wanted to create a program where the government would raise tariffs to pay for roads linking the eastern and western portions of the U.S., a system called the "American System. Monroe did not support this system, instead believing building and maintaining roads was the job of individual states.  However, Clay succeeded in getting some of his ideas passed, including a tariff on British cotton in 1816, and a tariff on iron in 1818.

In March of 1819 Monroe went on a second tour of the nation, and the response he received was once again spectacular.  Even while he talked of economic prosperity across the nation, the nation was heading into a recession caused by the Panic of 1819.  Because of the increased power gained by Congress over the presidency, Monroe was almost powerless to do anything about it.

With Europe recovering from a 20 year war, fewer goods were shipped to there.  This caused the prices of wheat, cotton, and other manufacturing products to drop.  Farmers could not sell their crops.  Sailors and merchants had no work.  Many were unable to repay their debts.

Compounding this problem was that the Bank of the U.S. loaned money to local banks, who loaned this money to spectators to buy land to sell to new settlers at a profit.  These local banks were printing more money than they had backed up in gold.  This made bills relatively useless. So, when the Bank of the U.S. demanded loans be repaid in gold rather than useless bills, spectators could not repay loans.  Local banks closed, and land prices fell.

This is what caused the Panic of 1819.  Such was the state of the union during the election of 1820, which saw a very popular Monroe running unopposed. With only one candidate to choose from, the election went by with little excitement, meaning there were very few people who participated in the voting.  On March 5, 1820, Monroe was sworn in to a second term.

The first agenda item was regarding foreign affairs.  Spain's American Empire was falling apart, as it had sold Florida to the U.S., and rebels in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Columbia had won their independence. Monroe and members of Congress worried that other European nations would join forces with Spain to regain control of these lands.

He was also concerned about Russia, which had gained lands along the Pacific in the Oregon Territory. Monroe was worried about a Russian colony being formed

So, how was the United States to deal with such a potential threat. One idea was to have the United States join forces with Britain.  This idea failed to gain weight because the British military was still considered to be the best in the world, and the U.S. would look like a puny partner.

This inspired Monroe, on December 2, 1823, to send a letter to Congress and the world in which he said, in part, "that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers..."

This was America's formal rejection of European powers coming to the United States looking to obtain territorial lands in either North or South America.  This was Monroe's defining moment.  The doctrine had little weight on international law.  No European leader denounced it. Still, Monroe knew he knew the British military would work with him to enforce it if need be.  So this was an opportunity for Monroe to "flex some American muscle."

Essentially, the doctrine was relatively ignored for the most part throughout the rest of the 19th century, and wasn't even referred to as the Monroe Doctrine until 1952.  Still, the doctrine was the first time the United States was able to put itself on equal terms with the other powers of the world. It was a defining moment for Monroe, and a defining moment for the young nation. It put the United States firmly on the side of democracy and self-government around the world.

Still, it did seem to work.  In 1824 the U.S. was able to talk Russia into giving up its claims in the U.S.

Also throughout his second term was ongoing debate over how to spend money on roads.  Henry Clay succeeded in getting a bill through Congress to pay for a National Road, although it was vetoed by Monroe. In vetoing it, he once again insisted, as Jefferson had before him, that it was up to individual states to decide how to spend money, not the federal government. This was Monroe's only veto.

Finally, another thing he did was to champion for a place to send freed slaves.  He was an ardent supporter in former slaves being sent back to Africa.  Like other Americans at the time, he did not believe blacks could function living in a world side by side with whites.  It was during his presidency that the American Colonization Society established a colony in Liberia (West Africa).  This settlement was named Monrovia. Today Monrovia is the capital of Liberia.

In 1824 he decided he would follow in the footsteps of Washington and not run for a third term.  He also decided that he would not support any candidate for president, leaving the decision to the American people. Three of the leading candidates were members of his cabinet (Calhoun, Crawford, Adams) and the third was the speaker of the House (Clay).  The other was a Senator from Kentucky (Andrew Jackson).

Even though Jackson won the popular and the most electoral votes, he didn't win enough to make him president.  So the decision went to Congress.  A deal was brokered between Clay and Adams to make Adams president and Clay Secretary of State.  So Monroe was succeeded into office by John Quincy Adams, a big government democratic-republican.

So, while his presidency was flawed as any presidency, Monroe was a very successful president.  , he supported Jeffersonian Principles, supported westward expansion, saw five new states enter the union (Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri), saw the nation obtain lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and he was strong on both domestic and foreign policies.  He was popular throughout his terms of office.  He was, in essence, one of the truly great presidents.