Tag Archives: Zachary Taylor

LINCOLN ON THE ROLE OF THE PRESIDENT

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

One of my goals for this summer is to work through the eight volumes of the papers of Abraham Lincoln.  I recently finished the first volume, which covers Lincoln’s life to 1848, and I’m taking vol. 2 with me when I head out momentarily on a road trip to see my dad down in Tennessee.

Volume 1 was a bit tedious.  A fair amount reflects Lincoln’s early law practice, so much of it involves correspondence with clients over small-potatoes legal cases–suits for unpaid debts and disputed property boundaries, etc.  But you can already see glimpses of Lincoln’s political values and his political world, and this part is fascinating.

Sam Wineburg (author of one of my favorite books of all time, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts), says that our forays into the past always involve encounters with both the familiar and the strange, and that certainly applies here.  Two of the themes of these early papers are partisanship and patronage.  Lincoln was fiercely loyal to the Whig Party during the 1830s and 1840s, and he repeatedly criticized those who would claim to support the party without submitting to party decisions.  The latter part of the volume covers most of Lincoln’s lone term to the U. S. House of Representatives, and much of his writing during that period pertains to political appointments–responses to office-seekers appealing for his aid or letters of recommendation on their behalf.  This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

The earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken around the time of his election to Congress in 1846.

But there is also much that feels strange–passages that remind us that we wouldn’t feel at home in Lincoln’s world, nor would he be entirely comfortable in ours.  His speeches were far longer, far more complicated, and far more substantive than the sound bites and slogans we take for granted today.  His arguments for transportation projects and protective tariffs were more than appeals to self-interest, but rather detailed rationales designed for thinking audiences.

General Zachary Taylor

General Zachary Taylor

I was also struck by Lincoln’s defense of the Whig presidential candidate in 1848, General Zachary Taylor.  Taylor had emerged from the Mexican War as a national hero, but he had no political experience to speak of, and during the campaign he had written a widely circulated letter in which he basically agreed to support any legislative measures that both houses of Congress might approve during his administration.  When Democrats cried that Taylor had no principles, Lincoln rose to defend him in a speech before the House.  Hear what Lincoln had to say:

Now this is the whole matter.  In substance, it is this: The people say to Gen. Taylor: “If you are elected, shall we have a national bank?”  He answers, “Your will gentlemen, not mine.”  “What about the Tariff?”  “Say yourselves.”  “Shall our rivers and harbors be improved?”  “Just as you please.”  “If you desire a bank, an alteration of the tariff, internal improvements, any, or all, I will not hinder you; if you do not desire them, I will not attempt to force them on you.  Send up your members of congress from the various districts, with opinions according to your own; and if they are for these measures, or any of them, I shall have nothing to oppose; if they are not for them, I shall not, by any appliances whatever, attempt to dragoon them into their adoption.”

How would we respond to a presidential candidate today who took such a position?  My guess is that we would be suspicious, if not appalled.  But why is that?  What does this say about us and the political system we take for granted?  The framers of the Constitution did not expect the president of the United States to be, by definition, the leader of a political party (they opposed political parties generally), and in the system of checks and balances that they constructed, they envisioned that the role of the president would be not to make law but to execute it.

In sum, while the founders hoped that the electoral college would select individuals of wisdom and integrity to fill the president’s chair, they never dreamed that the nation would someday expect candidates to fashion elaborate policy proposals or make innumerable pledges of what they (seemingly alone) will accomplish immediately upon taking office. We look to the president to be our political savior.  The founders’ understanding of the office was rather more modest.

HARD TO COMPETE WITH A TIME-TRAVELING TALKING HORSE

Humility is a virtue, but I struggle with pride.  Pride besets me in any number of ways, but one of the most powerful is through my job.  It is so easy to base my sense of self-worth and identity on what I do for a living.  (Can any of you relate?)  That is why, for me at least, it is so healthy to be reminded from time to time of the less than exalted opinion the broader culture has of history and historians.

Until quite recently, whenever I needed a dose of humility I thought back to an episode early in my teaching career.  The year was 1991, and a retired humanities professor from the University of Florida had raised eyebrows by announcing her suspicion that Zachary Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, had been the first American president to be assassinated.  Taylor had died in July 1850, sixteen months into his presidency, supposedly of acute gastroenteritis brought on by eating massive quantities of raw cherries and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration near the foot of the as yet unfinished Washington monument.  Not so, said Professor Clara Rising, who speculated that the twelfth president had actually been poisoned by one of his political enemies.  Although she had no real evidence to support her suspicions, Rising convinced Taylor’s descendents to agree to an exhumation of their ancestor’s remains, and for a week or so that June the nation breathlessly awaited the results of the partial autopsy.

This was my opportunity for lasting fame, or so I thought.  Even though I was only finishing my third year as a history prof at the University of Washington, I had already figured out that the broader culture didn’t typically view my knowledge and expertise as relevant to anything of contemporary importance.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that individuals from outside the university had contacted me in order to benefit from my vast storehouse of knowledge.  There was the reporter during the first Persian Gulf War who wanted to know why yellow ribbons had come to symbolize remembrance of loved ones in the military.  There was the Boeing employee with too much time on his hands who wanted me to help settle an office bet about the origins of the term “ten gallon hat.”  There was the anonymous e-mail from the history buff who wanted to know why so many Civil War battles took place near national parks.  That’s about it.

Now everything had changed.  Within hours of the announcement of the impending autopsy, a TV journalist from a popular Seattle news magazine program was calling to say that he would like to interview me to get my take on the story.  He wanted me to speak about the implications of Taylor’s alleged assassination, how it changed the course of history, etc.  I cleaned up my office (no small feat), put on a tie, and in a lengthy interview I shared a plethora of erudite insights about Zachary Taylor, antebellum American politics, and the coming of the Civil War.  I was soon to be a celebrity.

And then the results of the autopsy were announced the next morning, and unfortunately (at least for my television career), there was no evidence of foul play.  I never talked to the producer again.  All I got was a telephone message left while I was in class.  One of the secretaries in the History Department office had summarized the message on one of those pink”while you were out” slips that functioned as voice mail before there was voice mail.  “Taylor wasn’t poisoned, so no story,” said the memo.  “Thanks anyway.”  I was crushed.

That night I tuned in to the news magazine program nonetheless, eager to see what would be aired in place of my interview.  “What could possibly be more important,” I asked myself, “than the nuggets of wisdom I shared about the coming of the Civil War?”  The answer came shortly.  The entire thirty-minute program centered on a group of middle-aged businessmen in western Washington who went out into the woods and walked barefoot over hot coals in order to increase their self-confidence.  I’ve never forgotten that.  As I said, I struggle with pride.  I find it helpful to be reminded exactly where I, a professional historian, stand in society’s scale of values.  The answer: not very high up.

First ThanksgivingThis episode has served as an effective reality check for more than two decades, but I think I’ve just hit upon a new one that will work even better.  As readers of this blog will know, I am the recent author of a book titled The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  For more than six years I worked on the book, reading every scrap of evidence I could locate, both about the First Thanksgiving itself as well as about how Americans have remembered that event over the past four centuries.  A real labor of love, the project reflected my own evolving sense of calling and the burden that I felt to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy on the question of what it means to think Christianly about our national heritage.  I was delighted when Intervarsity Press agreed to publish it, and pleased that they scheduled its release for the end of summer–just in time for Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, mine is not the only book on the First Thanksgiving to be released in the last few months.  There have been a few, actually, but one in particular has caught my eye.  The author, not known as a historian, is one Rush Limbaugh–yes, that Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host and polemical writer.  The book that he has written is titled Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.   Limbaugh says that he wrote the book at a level intended for middle-school readers (age 10-13, say), but he hopes that the book will reach an audience of all ages.  As he explained to listeners during a recent broadcast of his radio show, he wrote the book to combat “the bastardization of American history as taught throughout America today.”  Patriots who buy the book will be doing their part toward “reclaiming the birthright and the truth of this country.”

I hope to offer an extended review of the book in a couple of days, but here is the basic premise: The book is told from the vantage point of a substitute middle school history teacher named Rusty Revere.  Rusty (who goes by the nickname Rush) loves American History.  And he knows a great deal about it, too, not only because he likes to read about it, but because he has actually experienced it directly.   You see, Rush Revere is blessed to own a horse named Liberty who, as it happens, can both talk and travel through time.  Whenever Liberty breaks into a gallop and exclaims “rush, rush, rushing to history,” a time portal opens and he and Rush can return to any moment in the American past that they choose.  In Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Rush and his talking horse return to the early 17th century and “set the record straight” about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.  Not released until October 29th, the book has already been reviewed by 371 readers on Amazon, 95% of whom give the book 4 or 5 stars (out of 5).  The most common theme in their rave reviews is the convictions that the account is “actually historically true,” is “an ACCURATE re-telling of early American history,” and “explains the real history of America.”  Hmmm.  I find myself wondering how they know this. . . .

And why, you ask, does this popular story of Rush Revere and Liberty the talking horse help to keep me humble?  I struggle with pride, remember, and this means that I have found it impossible to resist checking the ranking of The First Thanksgiving on Amazon.com.  These rankings change constantly, but as I write this, the book comes in at #23,567.  And Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims?  After an early media blitz it has tailed off badly.  Indeed, it is now only the third most popular book that Amazon sells.

Back with a review soon.