My entree into a lifetime fascination with American history came through a study, or as much of a study as a grade school student could manage from our home copies of the Book of Knowledge, of our nation’s presidents. For a look at the past chief executives affords a view of the U.S. chronology and heritage, starting with George Washington’s leadership of the often-underrated military force put together for liberation from England, right up to Barack Obama and contemporary concerns.
Great events, or in the case of Theodore Roosevelt a powerful personality that drove not only him but America’s agenda, have created what are considered the leading and most influential presidents. But what of the White House occupants that have been forgotten by most? And what did they do? History informs us that they were not certainly idle after taking office, but saw their administrations through more peaceful times, yielding results but not the kind that dominate the highlights in textbooks or of pocket histories of the country.
In fact, starting with Martin Van Buren in 1837 and up until Abraham Lincoln’s assuming office in 1861, the country was led by eight presidents who only served single terms. Two of them, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, died in office of natural causes, thrusting their respective vice presidents, John Tyler in 1841 and Millard Fillmore in 1850, into the top job. Others were single-termers by choice or political machinations, as seen with Franklin Pierce in 1853-1857 and Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan.
There had been one-term chief executives prior to Van Buren, including the father and son, John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). Both, however, were surrounded by individuals who completed second terms in office and had done much to advance the young nation. That the several presidents who followed Van Buren, whose popularity faded due to an economic downturn, seemingly accomplished little also pointed to the country running itself in the absence of strengthened presidential powers as we have today. The major decisions of that time came more from the minds of such giants of Congress as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
However, James K. Polk’s service as president saw the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico of 1846-1848 that expanded national borders with the acquisition of former Mexican territory in the southwest. Westward expansion became a major theme in American life in the years following the war, and along with it, the introduction of slavery into those territories. The Great Compromise engineered by Clay in 1850 appeared to resolve that issue until “bloody Kansas” became the focus of the battle between forces looking to preserve slavery and others dedicated to wiping it out.
The issue took precedence under Pierce’s term, while Buchanan’s was bookended by two related actions. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision on slave ownership in 1857 inflamed passions among the forces of abolition, while John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 seizure of the federal armory at what was then Harpers Ferry, Va., became a violent overture to the civil conflict that followed less than two years later.
There were one-term presidents to follow, but with more cares and responsibilities with which to deal as the nation marched through nearly 2-1/2 centuries of growth. The selection of a president every four years continues to involve, fascinate and arouse passions, and will continue to do so as long as the republic and its system of governance exists.
“The president is the only elected officer representing the entire nation, and this has a special obligation to the American people,” historians Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt concluded in their study “The American President” (1999). “As has been made clear … the American people still care about the presidency. They believe in it, and rightly insist that it belongs to them.”
Some profound words to consider on Presidents Day, to be observed Monday.
Does any single state in the Union lay claim to producing the most presidents? Actually, Donald Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office in 2017 strengthened New York’s existing lead to seven.
Van Buren, Fillmore, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt still claimed the Empire State as their residence while serving their country.
Virginia, of course, can claim Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Tyler as its contribution to history, while Ohio offers Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.
And while Zachary Taylor was born in Virginia, he grew up in Kentucky and cited it as his home state when he was elected in 1848. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson hailed from Virginia but was a New Jerseyite by 1912 when he won office. Ulysses S. Grant was a native of Point Pleasant, Ohio, but was a resident of Illinois following his election in 1868.
West Virginia has not sent a Mountaineer to the White House yet, but did have a major party presidential candidate in 1924. Clarksburg native John W. Davis, a former congressman, solicitor general and ambassador to England, was a dark horse choice of the Democratic Party to oppose incumbent Republican Calvin Coolidge, who had been vice president under Warren Harding until Harding’s sudden death in August 1923.
The times being what they were, with a nation enjoying prosperity, jazz and bootleg liquor made necessary by Prohibition, there was little inclination to see change in Washington and “Silent Cal” became a shoo-in for election. Although Coolidge was as far away as you could get from the boisterous nature of America at the time, Davis was also more of a representation of the sober side of professional life.
A respected and studious attorney prior to his public career, Davis (1873-1955) resumed his prosperous legal practice, eventually arguing 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He represented the steel industry in an action to prevent President Harry S. Truman’s moves to nationalize steel mills during the Korean War, and spoke for South Carolina’s effort to stem desegregation of its schools at the same time Brown vs. Board of Education was also considered by the justices. A conservative, Davis nevertheless championed human rights, international relations in a period where isolationism ruled and efforts to repeal Prohibition.
The sole book-length biography about Davis, “Lawyer’s Lawyer,” was published in 1973 and was authored by William Henry Harbaugh, who had been my father’s Army artillery unit captain in World War II. I had the pleasure of meeting him during a reunion staged by Dad in 1990.
Harbaugh had already published “Power and Responsibility: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt” (1961) to great acclaim and was best known as an expert on the 26th president. A retired professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia, he died at 85 in 2005 at Charlottesville.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.