My column of Spring Break musings in the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
As his final term in office wanes, President Barack Obama is aggressively acting to define his legacy as Wisconsinites head to the polls to make their selections for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominee who will attempt to either cement or dismantle that legacy. At such a time, it is edifying to reflect on the fickle nature of presidential legacies.
Last week I was in Nashville, escaping the Wisconsin winter for a few pleasurable days with my family, and I took the opportunity to explore a little history. A walk on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol building provides an opportunity to visit with the state’s three presidents and reflect on their vastly different legacies.
After walking up the steps on the east corner of the lawn past the memorials to the indefatigable Sergeant Alvin C. York and the victims of the Holocaust, I came upon a modest statute on a pedestal of a stern man in a suit and long coat gazing toward the Cumberland River a few blocks down the hill. It is an effigy of President Andrew Johnson, who is often and loudly derided as one of America’s worst presidents.
Before becoming president, however, he was an accomplished and well-regarded man. Despite having never attended school and growing up illiterate, Johnson rose to become an accomplished businessman whose popularity and reputation for integrity lifted him to become mayor, a congressman, governor of Tennessee and a U.S. senator. After bucking his secessionist state as a staunch Unionist and being the only southern senator to keep his seat when the Civil War started, he was selected as President Abraham Lincoln’s vice president when he ran for his second term despite being a Democrat. The assassination of Lincoln found Johnson holding the most powerful office in the country at precisely the most critical moment in our nation since George Washington voluntarily and peacefully relinquished power.
President Johnson managed to do everything wrong. At first, he attempted to enact the lenient intent of Lincoln toward the former Confederates and opposed the 14th Amendment, thus angering the Republicans in the North. Then, after being the first president to be impeached on largely orchestrated charges from vengeful Republicans and passage of the 14th Amendment, Johnson’s strict constitutionalist reservations about using his veto pen allowed overly vengeful reconstruction policies to pass into law, thus roiling the South for decades and garnering the enmity of southern Democrats. Johnson ended his presidency in disgrace and largely remains a disgrace to this day.
Walking further up the northeast slope of the capitol brought me to the magnificent statue of General Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse as he raises his hat in salute toward the capitol building. The central location and scope of the figure befits the place held by Jackson in the history of our nation and of Tennessee.
President Jackson is arguably the most consequential, and controversial, president of the 19th century. The hero of New Orleans ushered in the Age of Jackson and continued to drive the American experience for half a century. Jackson’s vigorous, or tyrannical, exercise of executive authority, forced removal of Native Americans, aggressive implementation of the spoils system, defense of federal power over nullification, paying off the national debt and smothering of the United States Bank are just a few reasons that Jackson is both revered and reviled. As a side note, the repulsive campaign of 1828 reminds us that our republic has survived, and will survive, the repulsive campaign of 2016.
Walking a few more steps to the northwest into a shady grove of trees, I found an unassuming monument comprised of a small, unadorned square roof supported by four simple columns over a marble pedestal. It was the tomb of one of Jackson’s proteges and the 11th president of the United States, James Knox Polk.
By modern and 19th century standards, Polk should be considered one of our best presidents, yet he is an afterthought in history books. Polk was elected to office on a promise to only serve a single term and to accomplish four major goals: cut tariffs, reconstitute an independent U.S. Treasury, secure the Oregon Territory and acquire the territories of New Mexico and California. Through astute diplomatic skills at home and abroad, he accomplished all four campaign promises and fulfilled his commitment to serve a single term by being the only president to willingly serve a single term.
Under Polk, Texas became the 28th state and he successfully prosecuted the Mexican-American War, leading to the annexation of all or parts of California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. It was Polk who expanded the United States from sea to shining sea for the first time.
Presidential legacies are a tricky business and Obama’s won’t be settled until at least a generation from now, if ever. And barring some electoral anomaly, one of the five people who have been barnstorming across Wisconsin asking for votes will also be forging a legacy of their own one day. Let us all hope and pray that it will be a legacy worthy of our great nation.