(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)
The Trump administration has begun to push its case that the situation on the Mexican border is in such crisis that the president needs to declare a national emergency. This action would allow the president to fulfill a campaign promise and build his wall, which is currently the subject of a stalemate shutdown in Congress.
Political posturing at the border, and the exaggeration of crisis, is reminiscent of another president who sought to use the Mexican border for political and territorial gains. As president, James Polk stirred up a fake crisis with Mexico that triggered a war, and resulted in the acquisition of 525,000 square miles of new land.
Polk had many detractors. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig Congressman, considered the war a political ploy meant to expand slavery into new territory. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln detailed how Polk had created a crisis at the border in order to provoke a war. Lincoln was joined in his dissent by John C. Calhoun, a democrat (and a fierce anti-abolitionist), and by Alexander Stephens, who would later act as the vice president of the Confederacy of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in the conflict as a young man, would later call the Mexican-American war the “most evil war.” In his memoirs, he wrote: “Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot.”
Still, the office of the presidency is a strong one, and Polk had his war. On May 13, 1846, Congress voted overwhelming to support the president. This came after Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to a provocative position on the Rio Grande, which prompted Mexico to attack. Polk, declaring that “American blood” had been shed on “American soil” had his justification for an expanded conflict.
Polk expected a short war and a quick victory, but the conflict would go on for two years. Ironically, the war would boost the political fortunes of Taylor, of the opposite Whig party. He would succeed Polk in the next election.
Writing about the war at the end of his life, Grant drew a line between the conflict with Mexico and the subsequent war between states.
“To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
If President Trump declares a national emergency in order to build his wall, that may open a whole new can of worms. But one thing is for sure–he’s not the first president to use politics at the border as a means to an end.
As the nation said goodbye to George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, his friend Senator Alan Simpson eulogized the former president by noting:
“Those that travelthehigh road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
The line was met with laughter in the National Cathedral–packed with those who had spent their careers in Washington D.C.–and with a moment of reflection. Bush was famous for his aversion to the word I, an aversion with roots in the lessons of his mother to avoid self-aggrandizing.
Bush led an exciting life. As a navy pilot, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the RNC, envoy to China, vice president, and as president he certainly had plenty of stories to fill the pages. Family and friends urged him to sit down and pen his memoirs. “I was unpersuaded,” said Bush. A prolific letter writer and diary writer, Bush nevertheless saw no draw in writing a public memoir encapsulating his life.
His reluctance to do so is reminiscent of another American president–Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself wrote a remarkable account of his life and of the Civil War–but not because he wanted to write one.
On the first page of his memoirs he insists:
“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.”
Grant, at sixty-two, was suffering from lung cancer. He had been swindled by a former business partner and sought a way to support his family after he died. When approached to write articles about his life for Century Magazine, Grant agreed. Mark Twain later helped him market the complete memoirs.
Grant, like Bush, internalized lessons he learned from his mother. In Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, Chernow writes: “It seems crystal-clear that Ulysses S. Grant modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast and internalizing her humility and self-control.”
Grant’s memoirs are far from personal. He is not particularly introspective–for example, he never mentions issues with alcohol, despite rumors that dogged him during the Civil War and, later, his presidency. Rather, Grant describes battles and muses candidly about sentiments on both the Union and Confederate sides. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published.
At this time, in 1885, it was highly unusual for a president to write a memoir. President Buchanan published the first ever in 1866, in an attempt to save his legacy. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion didn’t work. Buchanan today is regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for his inaction during the eve of the Civil War.
But the 20th century saw a glut of presidential memoirs. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all wrote their autobiographies. Every president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump wrote some form of memoir–excluding John F. Kennedy, who died in office.
It’s also becoming increasingly common for presidential candidates to release books–often before their candidacy is even declared. Barack Obama wrote two before he was nominated in 2008. Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate for 2020, released a book in 2017. Bernie Sanders released a book in late 2018. John F. Kennedy, who did not have a chance to write a book reflecting on his presidency, released his book Profiles in Courage in 1955, which introduced him to a wider audience before his run in 1960.
Today, there’s such an emphasis on personal brand that any politician going the route of Bush or Grant would risk being drowned out by others. Certainly Bush was criticized for failing to “sell” his accomplishments in the 1992 election, which he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton. Yet in our era of “Only I Can Fix it” perhaps some humility is just what the American political sphere needs.
The 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws”, effectively ending the 3/5 Compromise enshrined in the Constitution (stating that states could count black people as 3/5 of a person). As president, Andrew Johnson fought against the 14th amendment and convinced southern states to do the same. Following his lead, southern states refused to ratify it. Still, the amendment was ratified on July 9th, 1868. It was followed by the 15th amendment, which ensured equal voting rights, regardless of race.
This was, Grant said during his presidency, a mistake.
Grant was no racist–far from it–but he recognized the inherent problem of states disenfranchising voters, while using their bodies as tallies toward their power in the electoral college.
What was it about the 14th and 15th amendments that Grant didn’t like?
Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, recorded Grant’s thoughts during a particularly tense point in his presidency. The recent presidential election–which would eventually put Rutherford B. Hayes in office–had been highly contested, and Grant and Fish had heard reports from Louisiana that stated that black voters had been so terrorized that “overwhelmingly Republican parishes had ended up in Democratic columns.” A Senate investigation even later uncovered that in one parish 60 black Republicans had been murdered before the election.
Fish wrote of Grant, “He says he is opposed to the XV amendment and thinks it was a mistake; that it had done the negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.”
Grant later clarified what he meant: “[The South] keep[s] those votes, but disfranchise[s] the negroes,” he told journalist John Russell Young. “That is one of the gravest mistakes of reconstruction.” In other words, the 14th amendment increased the population of the South, which gave southern states more heft in the electoral college. So although the South suppressed the black vote, it could count them fully for election purposes. The result was an imbalance of power.
Grant saw it as his prime responsibility–indeed, the prime responsibility of the government–to ensure that everyone had safe, easy access to voting. “I will not hesitate to exhaust the powers thus vested in the Executive,” he said, “for the purpose of securing to all citizens of the United States the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and laws.”
Grant oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, schools, transportation, and juries. Democratic states did not bother to enforce it, and it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883 as unconstitutional. It would take almost 100 years for Congress to attempt anything similar.
It wasn’t until 1957 that Congress passed another civil rights bill; and it wasn’t until 1964 that laws first proposed in 1875 were enshrined into law. Then, in 1965 the country saw the Voting Rights Act, which enabled fair voting to the very citizens that Grant sought to protect, 90 years earlier.
Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency was a long time ago, but his mission, to protect voters, is today more important than ever.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key tenets of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority opinion, stated that such protections were no longer needed because “our country has changed” for the better. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Roberts wrote, “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy the problem speaks to the current conditions.”
Since 2013, it’s become harder for Americans to vote. In light of the 2013 ruling, southern states have closed at least 868 polling places–the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed the Department of Justice to stop closures like these, but that part of the legislation was struck down. Voxpoints out that these 868 closures are in about half of the counties that were once targeted by the Voting Rights Act because of their history of racial discrimination. This means that there could be hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of closures that are untracked.
In 2018, the United States faces the same problem it faced in the 1860s and 1870s. Americans have a limited ability to vote. Those who work long hours, or shifts, or live far away from polling places, face difficulties having their voices heard. Yet they are still counted, and states can use their bodies (even while it silences their voices) on the electoral stage. To Grant, this oversight on the part of the U.S. government would be nothing less than a dereliction of duty.
In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.
Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.
Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.
Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”
Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.
When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.
Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”
Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.
Harry S Truman
When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.
Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.
In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:
“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”
When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”
That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.
The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:
“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”
George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.” By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.
So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.
The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”
Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.
“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”
Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post.
(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)
Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”
When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.
Julia Grant is one of the many women largely forgotten by most Americans, yet one who bore witness to watershed moments and even likely altered the course of American history.
Part I: The End of the Civil War
Grant, née Dent, was married to the Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant. She was his steadfast companion during the war, despite her own Southern roots. She, like Mary Lincoln, endured questions about her loyalty to the Union cause–both were labeled secesh, or a supporter of secession because of their Southern roots and their families’ divided loyalties. But Julia Grant completely supported her husband and the Union. When approached in a grocery store by a woman who suggested that Julia Grant was “Southern in feeling and principle,” Grant responded, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”
Still, Grant admitted to deep melancholy after touring the fallen city of Richmond, Virginia. She described abandoned streets littered with paper “like forest leaves after summer is gone.” In her memoirs, she wrote how she left the tour feeling distraught. “I fell to thinking of all the sad tragedies of the past four years. How many homes made desolate! How many hearts broken! How much youth sacrificed!…tears, great tears, fell from my eyes…could it be that my visit reminded me of my dear old home in Missouri?”
As the two armies faced off near Richmond, and as the war began to look hopeless for the South, Confederate general James Longstreet seethed that continuing to fight was “a great crime against the Southern people and Army….[a] hopeless and unnecessary butchery.” In discussions with a Union General, Edward Ord, Longstreet suggested that his own wife could pass through Union lines and meet with Julia Grant, whom she had known as a girl, and then Julia could visit the Confederate side.
Julia Grant, for her part, was enthusiastic to participate. “Oh how enchanting, how thrilling!” she exclaimed to her husband. But when she asked Ulysses S. Grant if she could go, he refused. “No, you must not,” he said. “The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.”
The war would continue for two more months, before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
Part II: Julia Grant, Mary Lincoln, and a Fateful Decline
In the end, Julia Grant’s greatest influence on the Civil War itself may be her companionship to her husband–she traveled over 10,000 miles during the war in order to accompany him as often as possible–and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant, an alcoholic, never drank when his wife stayed with him.
Yet Julia Grant would command an oversized influence on the events directly after the war. Over the course of the conflict, her husband had developed a close working relationship with the president, Abraham Lincoln, who had struggled to find an effective leader for the Union Army. As the war wound down near Richmond, Julia Grant also spent time with Lincoln’s wife, Mary.
Their first meeting was auspicious. In his biography of her husband, Ron Chernow writes that it became family lore among the Dents. In their telling, Julia Grant paid a courtesy call on Mary Lincoln, only to find that the First Lady “expected [Julia] to treat her like royalty.” Mary Lincoln is infamous for her wild rages, but she had special reasons to dislike the Grants–she suspected that Ulysses S. Grant wanted her husband’s job, and he had allowed her son Robert to join him as an aide-de-camp, against her wishes.
Their relationship never improved, and Julia Grant was horrified when Mary Lincoln accused General Ord’s wife of flirting with her husband in a blistering tirade. When Julia tried to intervene, Mary Lincoln snapped, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”
A few months later, when the Lincolns invited the Grants to a night at the theatre, Julia Grant “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln.” When the president later encouraged her husband to accompany them, Ulysses S. Grant offered his regrets, joking that he “now had a command from Mrs. Grant.” Lincoln understood, saying, “Of course…Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request.”
In the end, the Lincolns invited Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. That night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth–dramatically altering the lives of everyone else in his box. Word had already spread that Grant would be accompanying the Lincolns that night, and, indeed, Booth sought to assassinate both Lincoln and Grant. We’ll never know if Grant would have been killed alongside with Lincoln, or if his military instinct might have saved both their lives.
There’s no doubt that Julia Grant played an important role during the Civil War by supporting her husband and suppressing his inner demons. Her fateful decision after the war to refuse the Lincoln’s invitation likely altered the course of events for decades to come.