For­got­ten pres­i­dents, part 1

The Catoosa County News - - COMMENTARY - David Car­roll

ac­tions re­gard­ing slav­ery.

Num­bers 4 and 5, James Madi­son and James Mon­roe, have al­ways been over­shad­owed by their pre­de­ces­sors. They got some things done, though. Madi­son is pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for the checks and bal­ances that are pos­si­ble with our three branches of gov­ern­ment. Mon­roe is the man be­hind the doc­trine that ba­si­cally kept Euro­pean coun­tries from in­ter­fer­ing with our busi­ness, and kept us from in­ter­fer­ing with theirs. And in an ironic his­tor­i­cal foot­note, Mon­roe died on the 4th of July, be­com­ing the third of our first five pres­i­dents (along with Adams and Jef­fer­son) to do so.

Num­ber 6, John Quincy Adams was best known for be­ing the son of Num­ber 2, John Adams. They had their own ex­clu­sive club un­til the Bushes came along. JQ was flu­ent in six lan­guages, and you can also thank him for pur­chas­ing Florida from Spain. Some Vols foot­ball fans wish he had left it alone.

Next came “Old Hick­ory,” An­drew Jack­son who dis­man­tled the na­tional bank, yet some­how ended up on the $20 bill. Some be­lieved he was a war hero (oth­ers had their doubts), and he be­lieved the earth was flat. But he low­ered the na­tional debt, which may have helped him win a sec­ond term.

Num­bers 8 through 15 are largely for­got­ten, for var­i­ous rea­sons. Martin Van Buren led the na­tion into an eco­nomic de­pres­sion, and failed to win an­other term. Wil­liam Henry Har­ri­son caught pneu­mo­nia on his in­au­gu­ra­tion day, giv­ing a two hour speech in freez­ing weather, and died a month later.

Har­ri­son’s VP John Tyler was the first man to as­sume the pres­i­dency fol­low­ing the death of an in­cum­bent, and ac­com­plished lit­tle. He mostly vetoed the bills Congress had passed, and ended up get­ting kicked out of his own party.

James Polk was an­other one-term pres­i­dent, but that’s all he wanted. He came to of­fice with a hand­ful of goals, and achieved them all. His poli­cies helped fix the econ­omy, and he ex­panded the na­tion west­ward into sev­eral states. Three months af­ter hap­pily leav­ing of­fice, he died at age 53 from in­testi­nal is­sues.

“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Tay­lor fought in sev­eral wars, sup­ported Na­tive Amer­i­can causes, and tried to keep a di­vided na­tion to­gether, but died less than two years af­ter tak­ing of­fice. He was suc­ceeded by his vice pres­i­dent, Mil­lard Fill­more. It turned out that he and Tay­lor were to­tal op­po­sites, and Tay­lor’s en­tire cab­i­net re­signed when Fill­more took over. It is widely be­lieved Fill­more helped ac­cel­er­ate the ten­sions that would lead to the Civil War.

When Num­ber 14, Franklin Pierce took over in 1853, the slav­ery is­sue was heat­ing up, and he too fanned the flames. He was also ar­rested for run­ning over a woman with his horse, while he was pres­i­dent. He’s lucky cable news wasn’t around back then.

He was fol­lowed by James Buchanan, the fi­nal pres­i­dent in this largely for­got­ten, and for­get­table cat­e­gory. His­to­ri­ans have a hard time find­ing any­thing pos­i­tive to say about his one term (1857 to 1861) in of­fice. While Buchanan was pres­i­dent, seven states (Alabama, Geor­gia, South Carolina, Mis­sis­sippi, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana) se­ceded from the Union. Buchanan didn’t seem to care.

Abra­ham Lin­coln’s tragic, but coura­geous war­time pres­i­dency has been well doc­u­mented in books and movies, and he was faced with chal­lenges like no pres­i­dent be­fore him. Next week, we’ll pick up af­ter the Civil War with more pres­i­den­tial studs and duds.

David Car­roll, a Chat­tanooga news an­chor, is the au­thor of “Chat­tanooga Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion” and “Vol­un­teer Bama Dawg,” a col­lec­tion of his best sto­ries. Books are avail­able at Chat­tanoogaRa­, or by send­ing $23 each to David Car­roll Book, 900 White­hall Road, Chat­tanooga, TN 37405. You may con­tact David at

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