1) The Presidency of Franklin Pierce – Larry Gara
University Press of Kansas | 1991 | PDF
Franklin Pierce was one of the least known, least liked, and least successful presidents in American history. In this new study of his administration, historian Larry Gara makes no attempt to revive Pierce’s reputation. Instead he provides a clear analysis of Pierce’s shortcomings as well as his few successes.
Franklin Pierce’s administration (1853-1857) spanned a turbulent period in the life of the nation: North-South polarization reached new extremes due, in part, to Pierce’s failure to understand the depth of Free Soil sentiment in the North; the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its aftermath made civil war likely, if not inevitable; and Pierce’s apology for southern actions served only to widen the rift. The term “Bleeding Kansas” came to symbolize the failures of Pierce’s administration.
Pierce’s few achievements were in the realm of foreign policy. In fact, Gara points out, the Pierce years were an important chapter in the history of American imperialisma time when Japan was opened to the West, U.S. trade in Central America and Asia was expanded, and additional land was acquired from Mexico. Pierce also initiated discussions on acquiring Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, Nicaragua, Formosa, the Dominican Republic, the guano islands of the Pacific, and Cuba.
In this twenty-fourth volume of the American Presidency Series, Gara provides a clear, tough-minded analysis of the Pierce administration and a fair, though generally negative, assessment the man and the president.
2) The Presidency of James K. Polk – Paul H. Bergeron
University Press of Kansas | 1987 | PDF
James K. Polk was one of the strongest and most active presidents ever to occupy the office. In the nineteenth century only Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln matched his overall leadership and domination of national government. Bergeron’s crisp, insightful narrative shows how and why Polk achieved such stature and yet failed to attract the kind of popular support or retrospective recognition granted other presidential luminaries.
A native of North Carolina, Polk prepared for the presidency by honing his leadership skills as a seven-term congressman, speaker of the house, and governor of Tennessee. Bergeron’s summary and analysis of those years shed light on the foundations of the presidency that followed. He provides fresh new perspectives on Polk’s relationship with his cabinet, his skirmishes with Congress over domestic economic legislation, and the curse of presidential patronage.
3) The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore – Elbert B. Smith
University Press of Kansas | 1988 | PDF
In this book Elbert B. Smith disagrees sharply with traditional interpretations of Taylor and Fillmore, the twelfth and thirteenth presidents (from 1848 to 1853). He argues persuasively that the slaveholding Taylor—and not John C. Calhoun—was the realistic defender of southern slaveholding interests, and that Taylor did nothing to impede the Compromise of 1850. While Taylor opposed the combination of the issues into a single compromise bill that could not be passed without amendments to suit the extremists, he would have approved the different parts of the Compromise that were ultimately passed as separate measures.
Most historians have written that Taylor’s death and Fillmore’s accession led to an abrupt change in presidential policy, but Smith believes that continuity predominated. Taylor wanted the controversies debated and acted upon as separate bills. Fillmore helped to accomplish this. Taylor was ready to defend New Mexico against Texas. Fillmore ordered 750 additional troops to New Mexico and announced publicly that he would do the same. Taylor had wanted statehood for California and New Mexico with self-determination on slavery. As separate measures, the Congress admitted California and preserved a viable New Mexico as a territory authorized to make its own decision on slavery.
With secessionists pitted against moderates in the southern elections of 1851, Fillmore had to choose between his constitutional oath and his personal antipathy to the new fugitive slave law. He supported the law and thereby helped keep southern moderates in power for a few more years. In fact, however, his efforts did not recapture a single slave. In Smith’s view, Fillmore’s most serious mistake was refusing in 1852 to get himself nominated for another term.
Smith argues that Taylor and Fillmore have been seriously misrepresented and underrated. They faced a terrible national crisis and accepted every responsibility without flinching or directing blame toward anyone else.
4) The Presidency of James Monroe – Noble E. Cunningham Jr.
University Press of Kansas | 1996 | PDF
Filled with new insights and fresh interpretations, this is the richest study yet published on the presidency of James Monroe, the last Revolutionary War hero to ascend to that august office.
Noble Cunningham’s history of the fifth presidency (1817-25) shows a young nation beset by growing pains and led by a cautious politician who had neither the learning nor the intellect of Jefferson or Madison, but whose actions strengthened both the United States and the presidency itself.
Cunningham makes clear that the mislabelled “era of good feelings” had more than its share of crises, including those resulting from revolutions in Latin America, Spanish possession of Florida, the depression of 1819, and the controversy over slavery in Missouri.
Monroe, he shows, successfully defused these potentially explosive situations, most notably by negotiating the 1820 Missouri Compromise and announcing in 1823 what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, a document that still guides American policy in the western hemisphere.
Cunningham effectively places these actions within the context of Monroe’s life and times and sheds new light on the inner workings of his cabinet and his relations with Congress. In addition, he features the prominent roles of two future presidents: John Quincy Adams as secretary of state and Andrew Jackson as the controversial general whose actions in the Seminole War created a headache for the administration.
Though substantially informed by previous scholarship, Cunningham writes largely from the abundant primary source materials of the era to provide an illuminating new look at a president and a nation on the brink of greatness.
5) The Presidency of James Buchanan – Elbert B. Smith
University Press of Kansas | 1975 | PDF
This book offers conclusions that are very different from most of the traditional historical interpretations of the Buchanan presidency. Historians have either condemned Buchanan for weakness and vacillation or portrayed him as a president dedicated to peace who did everything constitutionally possible to avoid war. Under the scrutiny of Elbert B. Smith, Buchanan emerges as a strong figure who made vital contributions not to peace but to the accelerating animosities that produced the war.
“Historians who have considered the Civil War a necessary and justifiable price for the destruction of slavery should feel a debt to James Buchanan,” Smith writes. “Those who think the war could and should have been avoided owe him nothing.”
Most of the accounts of the era have concentrated on the Dred Scott Case, Bleeding Kansas and the Lecompton Constitution, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown, the rise of the Republicans and the disintegration of the Democrats, the election of 1860, and the bitter quarrels over slavery extension occasioned by these events. Buchanan has often appeared on a stage occupied by more important actors.
Whether or not the war was already inevitable by March, 1857, cannot be proved. That a subsequent series of emotion-packed events filled both North and South with rage and fear, triggering secession and the war, is undebatable. It is Smith’s theory that Buchanan, in leading the United States through these fateful years, added much to the war spirit that developed in both sections. Driven by affection and sympathy for the Southerners, he tried to satisfy their demands for slavery rights in the territories. This aroused bitter anti-South feelings throughout the North, which foiled his efforts and further convinced the Southerners that they could no longer have their way inside the Union. The one event that finally triggered the Southern secession was the election of a Republican president, and Buchanan’s agreement with the Southern demands and his personal hatred for Stephen A. Douglas did much to accomplish this.
Covering the most controversial period in American history, Smith presents important new evaluations for the consideration of students of both the Civil War and the presidency.