America Needs a John Quincy Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and the son of the nation’s second, had a reputation as a prickly, aloof man. He was a one-term president and by no means a popular one–yet he came to be seen as a man of iron principle and honesty, even in the face of political pressure from his own party. Politicians of his ilk are largely missing from the political landscape today.

I: Switching Parties

Adams, the son of one of America’s most prominent Federalists, entered the Senate in 1803 as a Federalist himself. Yet he remained distant from his colleagues. In an era of hyper-partisanship in which Federalists accused the Republicans of colluding with France, and the Republicans accused the Federalists of colluding with England (sound familiar?) Adams stubbornly trod his own path. He supported both President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the administration’s hardline on England, which his fellow Federalists opposed. His father, former president John Adams wrote:

“You are supported by no Party. You have too honest a heart, too independent a Mind and too brilliant Talents to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any Man who is under the Dominion of Party Maxims or Party Feelings.”

His stubborn refusal to fall in line with the Federalists, and his support of Jefferson, cost Adams his seat in the Senate, his place in the party, and many friends back in Boston. To Adams, it was a matter of principle, and a matter of what he thought was right and wrong according to the U.S. Constitution.

This sort of political courage is rare in Washington today. To be fair to today’s politicians, the landscape has changed. There is pressure from lobbyists, constituents on social media, and from within the party itself to toe the party line. Political purity tests are the cause celebre of today, and politicians that stray too far from the party line face possible challenges from the left or right of their own parties. It’s doubtful that Adams–with his iron will and stubborn personality–would be swayed. But it’s also likely that he’d never make it to Congress (or the presidency) in the first place.

II: As President 

John Quincy Adams’s presidency spanned a divisive time in American. After the relative political tranquility of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’s presidencies–“the Era of Good Feelings”–, in which the Republicans enjoyed almost unanimous support, Adams entered office as the country’s political unity began to fray. The nature of campaigning had also begun to change–in the day of George Washington, a man had to practically be dragged to the presidency by his fellow citizens. In John Quincy Adams’ day, it was becoming permissible for a man or his friends to campaign actively.

The electoral system in America of the 1820s had begun to evolve as more states joined the union, and although there wasn’t a uniform way of voting, regular people had more of a sway than ever before. Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, supported this democratic uprising. The fact that Adams entered office in 1824 under the auspice of a “corrupt bargain”–Jackson won the most electoral votes, but not a majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was alleged to have struck a deal with Henry Clay–only increased the divide between the two parties.

John Dickerson’s piece for the Atlantic The Hardest Job in the World postulates that the presidency has become a beast unmanageable for one man, and that the current system of campaigning rewards skills that aren’t necessary applicable or important to the presidency once he/she is in the office. Campaigning rewards skills like charisma and debate; the office requires management and governance. Adams would probably agree with Dickerson–part of his cohort’s campaign against Jackson was that the fiery formal general couldn’t spell and lacked the necessary political experience to be president. Adams likely couldn’t be elected today, and perhaps was the last person to be elected based on political merits, rather than his power of campaigning. James Traub, an Adams biographer, notes of Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828: “Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not elect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”

III: Post Presidency

Adams served a single term as president–becoming only the second man to be voted out after four years, after his father, John Adams. But Adams refused to be cast into political obscurity. As part of his upbringing in Massachusetts, his parents had always encouraged him to find ways to be useful. “Usefulness” is also a reason James Comey invoked to justify writing his book after he was fired by Donald Trump.

When the opportunity rose for Adams to join the House of Representatives, he took it. Although many of his friends and family feared it would be degrading for an ex-president to join a lower chamber, Adams refuted this logic, saying it wouldn’t be at all degrading to serve “as a selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the people.” He joined the House in 1830 and would serve until his death in 1848–Adams literally collapsed on the House floor and died in the Speaker’s office.

As a member of the House, Adams took on slavery as his cause. Although he never labelled himself an abolitionist–at the time, abolitionists were hated by both the North and South as dangerous rabble rousers–Adams became a thorn in the side of the “slavocracy.” He insisted on introducing petitions to the House which raised questions about slavery–and continued to do so even after the passage of the gag rule, which forbid any such thing on the House floor. A rival Congressman once tried to bait Adams, reading back a line that he’d spoken to a group of black citizens: “The day of your redemption is bound to come. It may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or blood let it come.” The Congressman read the line twice. He reminded his colleagues what this meant–emancipation and maybe civil war. Adams replied:

“I say now let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men let it come. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Although the political climate was not at all amenable to this sort of thought–indeed, at the time such a statement was shocking, and Adams received his fair share of death threats–Adams never cowered from a controversial political issue that he thought was right, or wrong. He challenged the slavocracy as a Congressman and as a lawyer, when he defended the men and women of the Amistad and won their freedom. 

In today’s increasingly partisan climate, where politicians are falling over themselves to move further to the left or right in order to move up the ladder, a politician like Adams, who sticks to his principles even under immense political pressure, would be a welcome change.

James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today

By Kaleena Fraga

Long, long before the presidency linked itself with Twitter, James Madison gathered with his fellow Americans to retool the government, discarding the Articles of Confederation for what would become the United States Constitution. The men who came to the Constitutional Convention came armed with different ideas and doubts. Madison lay out what he believed were the greatest problems with democracy, and how he proposed to solve them.

Madison believed in two things: that a large country would allow for a variety of ideas and opinions to thrive, safe from a looming majority, and that friendship was possible even when the two parties disagreed politically. However, the Internet Age has threatened both Madisonian ideas. In the United States, not only do most Americans belong to one of two parties, and view citizens of the opposing party with distrust, they are increasingly likely to demand purity tests within their own parties, and to cast out anyone with a nuanced opinion on a controversial subject.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 1787, Madison laid out his view of democracy. “All civilized societies,” Madison told the assembled delegates, inevitably, “[divide] into different sects, factions and interest…in all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Madison’s response to this was his theory of expansion:

“The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or that of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

In other words, the size of the country would allow for so many different opinions and ideas that no one party could monopolize the national discussion. Madison wrote this at a time when many Americans were wary of changing the national makeup from a loose array of states into one country. Madison argued that doing so would multiply the number of interest groups, therefore protecting them from each other.

Future Madison-foe Alexander Hamilton jotted down his own notes on Madison’s proposal. He speculated that “paper money” would unite people no matter what their location. He also thought that even a large republic could be vulnerable to a demagogue, writing, “an influential demagogue will give an impulse to the whole.”

As the country became increasingly partisan, Madison eventually morphed this theory to fit his political aims. As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, opposing Hamilton and the Federalists, Madison relied on increasingly partisan language. He shifted his belief to say that while there could be disagreement among Republican ranks, anyone on the other side was an enemy to the notion of America itself (this in a time when leading Republicans believed that leaders of the opposing party, the Federalists, aimed to bring monarchy to America). In 1792 Madison wrote an article encapsulating this idea, entitled “The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends?” The answer: anyone who agreed with him and his fellow Republicans. Madison’s view of a large country, then, with many different views and opinions, had begun to wither on the vine.

Although he came to embrace partisanship, Madison believed strongly in maintaining friendships amid political disagreement. He believed in the difference of ideas, as long as he could trust that the other person shared his larger goals (i.e. the good of the nation, that is to say, that the nation would remain a republic instead of a monarchy). He and James Monroe are a good example. Although they ran against each other, Madison eventually made Monroe his Secretary of State. Similarly, although Madison’s friend Edmund Randolph didn’t support the Constitution, Madison later recommended him for a job in George Washington’s cabinet.

Although partisanship and distrust of those with opposing views may be a stance as old as the nation itself, the interconnectedness of the country in the Internet Age has not only deepened the divide between the two major parties–it has increased the demand for purity of its candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast The Axe Files, argued that Democrats need to support candidates across the political spectrum–not just those furthest to the left or who ascribe to a strict set of liberal principals.

The political action committee “We Will Replace You” has vowed to do just that–vote out any Congressional Democrats (largely representing red states) who cooperate with the Trump Administration. On the right, the G.O.P. has seen an exodus of its more moderate members–Jeff Flake and Bob Corker chose to not run for reelection, citing their belief that, as Republicans who sometimes opposed the president, they could not win in their districts.

James Madison began his political career with two strong beliefs: that the size of the country would allow for a variety of opinions to thrive, and that friendships were possible even in the face of political disagreement. He faltered on his first point early on as partisanship ran rampant; but Madison applied it to his second–that a big country could allow for a variety of views as long as, overall, the people wanted the best for the country. In this way, Madison found it easy to remain friends with fellow Republicans who disagreed with him.

But today, as Americans are becoming more likely to identify people in the opposite party as endangering the nation, they also are turning on members of their own party.

Madison’s theory of expansion, then fails spectacularly in the Internet age. Americans still live far apart, but are closer than ever in their shared experience of national and international events. The two biggest political parties are able to spread information across a wider platform than ever before, leaving little room for competing voices or third party candidates (although American history is dotted with attempts by third party candidates, they have never succeeded).

As a result, Madison’s belief in friendships beyond politics is also in jeopardy. As American voters and their representatives drift further and further toward extremes, it’s becoming easier for candidates on the fringes to demand political purity across the spectrum, and to cast out any candidates who do not fit their desired, purist mold. Political compromise, in the age of social media, seems increasingly out of reach.

Will, We Hardly Knew Ye: the Legacy of William Henry Harrison

By Kaleena Fraga

William Henry Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the shortest term in office; and being the first American president to die in office. In honor of the anniversary of his untimely death (April 4th, 1841), let’s review what WHH accomplished while still alive.

His presidency: William Henry Harrison was inaugurated on March 4th, 1841 and died exactly a month later. At the time he was the oldest person ever inaugurated–today he’s beat by Donald Trump, 70, and Ronald Reagan, 69. His death launched a mini constitutional crisis–no one was sure what to do if the president died in office. Harrison’s VP, John Tyler, insisted that it meant that he became president–not “acting president” as some argued at the time. The nation wouldn’t definitively solve the issue of succession until 1967 and the passing of the 25th amendment.

His nickname: Harrison went by the moniker Tippacanoe, a nod to the Battle of Tippacanoe against Native American forces in 1811 during the lead-up to the War of 1812. Although Harrison would later use this battle to his political advantage, James Madison’s Secretary of War originally interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Americans. The skirmish left 62 Americans dead and 126 wounded; thirty six Native Americans were likewise killed.

His legacy: Although Harrison died in office after one month, his grandson Benjamin Harrison was also elected to the presidency, and completed one full term in office. William Henry & Benjamin Harrison are the only grandfather-grandson to serve as president.

His campaign: In what would become known as the Log Cabin campaign, the 1840 battle for the White House pitted the Whig Harrison against Democrat Martin Van Buren, who was running for a second term in office. Democrats, mocking Harrison’s age, wrote in a party newspaper:

“Give him a barrel of hard (alcoholic) cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and take my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

Whigs leapt on this, portraying Harrison as a man of the people–someone who, you know, you could grab a beer with. Van Buren, they claimed, was an elitist, out of touch with the common man. Ironically–and in a sign of campaigns to come–Harrison was the aristocrat, having been born to a wealthy family on a plantation. Van Buren’s father was a tavern keeper.

This was not a contest of the Founding Fathers’ day, when it was sacrilegious to campaign. Among other antics, a group of Whigs pushed a ten foot ball made of tin and paper slogans of Harrison’s for hundreds of miles (from this comes the phrase “get the ball rolling”). Other Whig supporters passed out whiskey in log cabin shaped bottles which came from the E.C. Booz distillery (from this comes the word “booze.” See, there are reasons to remember William Henry Harrison!).

It was, as John Dickerson points out in his podcast, Whistlestop, in many ways the first modern campaign.

His speech: At one hour and forty-five minutes, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address is the longest in history. It’s 3,000 words longer than the runner up’s speech (William Howard Taft, 1909). Given on a cold Washington day, it’s also in all likelihood what killed him.

And so we’ll keep it short. Happy death-day, President Harrison.

First Lady Feature: Edith Wilson

By Kaleena Fraga

Over the course of Women’s History Month, we’ve featured several remarkable first ladies who had the wits and wisdom to be president themselves. Edith Wilson, who hid the depth of her husband’s illness from the country, is the only one who actually got close to assuming the presidency.

2-ebw-electric-car_1_origEdith met Woodrow Wilson during a chance encounter at the White House. His first wife, Ellen, had died of Bright’s disease only seven months earlier. They had a quick and passionate courtship which alarmed many of Wilson’s advisors. Not only would the president soon run for reelection (his advisors fretted that his pursuit of a woman so soon after the death of his wife would hurt his chances), but Edith was known in town for being one of the first women to ever drive a car, and was shunned by Washington’s elite because her money came from her (deceased) first husband’s jewelry store.

Three months after they met, the Wilsons wed.

Then in 1919, two years into Wilson’s second term, and four years into their marriage, Wilson suffered a devastating stroke that left him paralyzed. The president had been barnstorming around the country in the aftermath of WWI, trying to whip up support for his inspired but doomed plan for a League of Nations.

As the 25th amendment wouldn’t be ratified for almost fifty years, there wasn’t really anedith and woodrow answer to what the government should do if the president became unable to perform his duties. Wilson wasn’t dead, so there didn’t seem to be a reason for the vice president to step into his role. Without the 25th amendment, Congress and the Cabinet had no real power to act (and the extent of Wilson’s condition was kept top secret). To Edith, protective of her husband and his presidency, the answer was clear.

Anything that came to the president first had to go through the first lady. This included Cabinet members, policy papers, and any other pressing issues. As such, Edith Wilson decided what was important enough for the president to see–and what he could live without knowing.

Although Edith Wilson denied ever becoming president herself, she did acknowledge her “stewardship” during the Wilsons’ waning White House years:

“So began my stewardship, I studied every paper, sent from the different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

President Wilson slowly recovered from his stroke, but remained paralyzed on one side. He died five years later, having remarked, “I am a broken piece of machinery–when the machinery is broken–I am ready.” When he died on February 2nd, 1924, his last word was the name of his wife, who’d guided him through his illness and the final years of his presidency. Edith.

Edith Wilson would live for almost forty years after her husband’s death. She was active in political life, speaking at the 1928 Democratic Convention and attending the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Although Americans have never elected a female president, Edith Wilson got close. During her husband’s illness, she arguably ran the country in his stead.

The Road to Freedom: Lincoln, South Carolina, and the Emancipation Proclamation

PART II

By Duane Soubirous

The U.S. Constitution outlines the structure of democratic government while limiting the powers of an elected majority; the First Amendment famously guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and petition of grievances. The Constitution also guaranteed the right to own slaves, without actually using the word ‘slave,’ until the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification, eight months after President Lincoln’s assassination.

Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery was a states’ rights issue and any national attempt to end it would be futile, but he knew that the national government could take the first step in ending slavery by stopping its growth. Lincoln argued that slavery, a “moral, social and political evil,” must be respected where it was already established, but denied from expanding into new territories. This stance on slavery might seem weak today, but in 1860, it was too extreme for South Carolina.

The election of Abraham Lincoln so enraged South Carolinians that they seceded three months before he was even inaugurated. By Feb. 1, one month before inauguration, the rest of the Deep South—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas—had followed suit. Virginia seceded after Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter in April, followed by Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Every seceded state was a slave state, but not all slave states seceded.

In order to keep the Border States—Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia (which had seceded from Confederate Virginia and became the 35th state to enter the Union), Maryland and Delaware—in the Union, Lincoln assured those states that the Civil War wasn’t about ending slavery, it was about upholding the presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. Lincoln (unsuccessfully) hoped his conciliatory approach would also foster Union sentiment in the South and encourage loyal Southerners to vote Confederates out of office.

John C. Frémont, the Mexican-American War general nicknamed “the Pathfinder” who became the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1856, commanded the Union army in Missouri. On Aug. 30, 1861, Frémont issued a proclamation freeing all slaves under his control. Northerners exalted Frémont as the emancipator they wished Lincoln was, but Kentucky and Maryland threatened to secede. Lincoln ordered Frémont to rescind his proclamation, a move that Frederick Douglass denounced as weak, imbecile, and absurd. In May 1862, General David Hunter similarly declared all slaves free in his Department of the South, and Lincoln again ordered a general to rescind an emancipation proclamation.

While Lincoln quarreled with his generals, Republicans took advantage of their post-secession lopsided majority in Congress and passed laws restricting slavery. By July 1862, Congress declared that Confederate slaves who escaped to Union lines would be forever free, emancipated slaves in the District of Columbia and abolished slavery in the territories (Congress ignored the Dred Scott decision ruling that they couldn’t abolish slavery in the territories). Lincoln supported a more gradual approach to emancipating D.C. slaves and worried the bill would outrage Maryland, but he signed it into law anyways.

As the Civil War dragged on and Confederates used their slaves against the Union army, Lincoln saw emancipation as a military necessity. Slaveowners long asserted that the right to own slaves was protected by the Fifth Amendment, which states no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty and property,” but the Constitution allowed Lincoln, as commander-in-chief in a time of war, to seize Confederates’ property.

After the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North, Lincoln proclaimed that effective January 1, 1863, all slaves located within areas controlled by the Confederacy “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Not only did the Emancipation Proclamation exclude the Border States that remained loyal, it also excluded Tennessee and specific counties in Louisiana and Virginia, which had been pacified by the Union Army. Abolitionists decried the Emancipation Proclamation’s legalese and emphasis of military necessity over justice and morals, but Abraham Lincoln wrote the emancipation to convey its constitutionality to proslavery Democrats, Border States, and the Supreme Court (still led by Roger Taney of the Dred Scott decision).

It’s impossible to know how long slavery would have continued had the South not seceded, but prior to 1861 Abraham Lincoln would have considered his presidency a success if he could “rest in the belief that [slavery]  is in the course of ultimate extinction.” By refusing to acquiesce to a majority that desired slavery to stay where it was and not expand, South Carolina put in motion the events that led to its sudden eradication. Declaring slaves free was one thing, however; Lincoln needed to conquer the Confederacy and convince the Border States to emancipate their slaves.

A Brief History of Impeachment

By Kaleena Fraga

Benjamin Franklin noted that throughout history, once political leaders had “rendered [themselves] obnoxious,” the people had no other choice but to assassinate them. Instead, Franklin thought, the Constitution should allow Congress to punish the president when he deserved it, but also give him a trial to prove his innocence.

This week has a couple of significant impeachment anniversaries. First, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19th, 1998. He faced charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. To the charge of perjury, five Republicans broke from the party and voted against impeachment. However, five Democrats also voted for impeachment. Two other charges–another perjury charge and one abuse of power charge–were defeated.

Clinton would go on to be acquitted in the Senate. A two-thirds majority would have been needed to convict him–the perjury charge was rejected 55 to 45 and the Senate was split 50-50 on obstruction of justicewsj.jpg. Democrats voted together, against impeachment, and they were joined by five Republicans on the obstruction-of-justice charge.

It had been 131 years since a president faced an impeachment hearing–Andrew Johnson was similarly impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate in 1868. Johnson’s charges were quite different from Clinton’s–the House accused him of violating the Tenure of Office Act–but both men faced Congresses hostile to their presidencies.

In between Johnson and Clinton sits Richard Nixon, who was not impeached but who faced impeachment charges. He resigned before the trial began.

Also on December 19th was the swearing in of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president. Nixon’s vice president, Gerald Ford, had become president when his predecessor chose to resign rather than be impeached. Ford then had the power to appoint his own vice president (pending Senate confirmation) just as Nixon had appointed him when his original vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned following accusations of corruption and tax fraud.

This must have especially stung for Nixon, who had faced Rocky as a political rival in the 1960 and 1968 elections.

In contentious and politically divided times, the “I” word is often thrown around. Billionaire Tom Steyer is currently offering 10 million dollars to anyone who provides information that leads to Donald Trump’s impeachment. At town halls during the Obama presidency, some Republican leaders agreed with their constituents that Obama should be impeached, but none ever drew up charges against him.

Has the nation treated impeachment as the founders intended? They disagreed on the matter themselves. Many–uncomfortable with the idea of removing an executive from power, as this sort of thing had never been tried with, say, a king–argued that the legislative branch would abuse its power. Elbridge Gerry (of gerrymandering infamy) protested that a good president shouldn’t have to worry about a legislature which honorably represented the people’s interests. “A good magistrate will not fear them,” he said. “A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”

The 25th Amendment

William H. Harrison on His Death Bed with Visitors
William Henry Harrison, weeks after his inauguration

By Kaleena Fraga

Between 1789 and 1967 eight presidents died in office. In 1841, the death of the first president to die in office, William Henry Harrison (a short but tragic tale for another time) raised the question of succession in the event of the executive’s demise. Amidst the confusion, Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, had to insist that the president’s death meant that he became president, not just “acting president.”

Still, it took the country another one hundred and twenty-six years to formally add an amendment to the constitution outlining the path of succession, and what to do if the president became unable to perform his duties.

It wasn’t as if the question wasn’t raised again–in the time after Harrison’s death until the adoption of the amendment in 1967, four presidents were assassinated, three died in office, and others suffered medical conditions that rendered them incapable to serve. Without clear guidelines, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke made his wife the most powerful woman in America. President Eisenhower, his VP Nixon, and the Attorney General at the time, Herbert Brownell Jr., tried to clarify the procedure after Ike’s heart attack–Nixon would preside over Cabinet meetings when Eisenhower was indisposed, but never assumed power.

ST-1A-1-63
LBJ is sworn in following JFK’s assassination

The issue became more urgent after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Given that his death had elevated Lyndon Johnson to the presidency (a man who had a history of heart problems) there was a pressing need to spell out what should happen if LBJ died or became unable to preside as president.

What does the 25th amendment do? Several things.

First, it reaffirms John Tyler’s actions: if the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office, power is transferred to the vice president.

Second, it allows the president to nominate a vice president if the original VP leaves office for whatever reason (this was an issue in 1868 during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment hearing, since he had no vice president. At the time, it was customary to wait for the next election if a VP left office. It was invoked for the first time in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned as Nixon’s VP. Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to replace him).

Third, the president can send an official notice to Congress saying he is unable to perform his duties, and another note when he is ready to resume (as in the case of a medical procedure–George W. Bush invoked this section in 2002). In the interim, the vice president has the powers of the president.

Fourth, if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet or Congress believe that the president is unable to perform his duties, they can remove him from power. This is the only section that has never been invoked.