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In their recent book The Presidents Club:  Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy wrote that “Throughout its history, the club has never had more than six” living United States Presidents. Quoting President George H.W. Bush, they wrote, “We don’t talk about it. You don’t have to.No matter the politics you know and understand the weight of the decisions the other guy had to make, and you respect that.” During President Abraham Lincoln’s first term as the 16th President (1861 – 1864), the Presidents Club consisted of six members, including President Lincoln and five former Presidents: Martin Van Buren (8th, 1833 – 1837), John Tyler (10th, 1841 – 1845), Millard Fillmore (13th, 1850 –1853), Franklin Pierce (14th, 1853 – 1857), and James Buchanan (15th,1857 – 1861).* Their terms spanned 30 years of economic turmoil, territorial expansion, turbulent politics, and factious Supreme Court decisions. Although he was not a member of the Presidents Club due to his untimely death shortly after leaving office, James K. Polk (11th, 1845 – 1849) was president during the westward expansion of the United States, which profoundly influenced national politics, particularly as related to slavery during the 1850s and President Lincoln’s administration.

About two months after the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862), Orrin wrote in response his brother-in-law Ebenezer F. Witherell in Anson, Maine: “… in your letter, you express a wish to see this war be brought to a close and the Union restored as it was. Also, you would like to see the leading traitors hung. You mention the names of several of them, but they are all residents of the South.Can you not think of any in the North that should hang by the side of them? If not, you overlook the greatest nest of vipers the world ever knew…I must confess myself greatly surprised at your wish in regard to ex-president Buchanan. I think that you must have made it in ignorance. I know that you possess a more charitable disposition than to condemn anyone for whatever offence that they may have committed against humanity to less food that the poorest soldier’s fare, if you knew what that really was.” What were the positions of the members of the Presidents Club during their terms of office on the pressing issues of slavery and states’ rights, and how did their actions lead Ebenezer to such negative feelings about President Buchanan and his policies? Beginning with Van Buren, we will examine these issues.

In President Van Buren’s Inaugural Address on March 4, 1837, he addressed several concerns challenging our country, chief among which at that time was slavery, when he said: “The last, perhaps the greatest, of the prominent sources of discord and disaster supposed to lurk in our political condition was the institution of domestic slavery. I believe it a solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it…I must go to the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent to every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with the determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.” Although as president, Van Buren vowed to oppose attempts to end slavery in the states where it existed, as a member of the Presidents Club during Polk’s presidency, Van Buren opposed any extension of slavery into the newly acquired territories and subsequently supported President Lincoln’s decision to oppose secession of the Southern States. 

Following the untimely death of President William Henry Harrison (9th, 1841), fellow Virginian and Vice President John Tyler assumed the presidency. President Tyler was a strong proponent of states’ rights and the western expansion of the United States; on the issue of slavery, his views as a member of the Presidents Club were made clear as a leader and Chair of the Washington Peace Conference of 1861. During the last two years of President Buchanan’s administration, the 36th Congress (March 4, 1859 to March 4, 1861) made unprecedented efforts to negotiate a compromise on slavery and related secessionist issues in order to preserve the Union. Even when both the 36th Congress and President Buchanan’s administration were lame ducks for the four months between the election of President Lincoln on November 6, 1860 and his inauguration on March 4, 1862, former President Tyler made heroic efforts at the Peace Conference between January 17,1861 through February 6, 1861 to negotiate a compromise on secessionist issues among the slave and Border States, the 36th Congress, President Buchanan, and President-elect Lincoln. After seven Southern States seceded from the Union between December 20, 1860 and February 1, 1861, the negotiations collapsed on February 6, 1861. Tyler then returned to Virginia and became a proponent for secession among the Southern States; Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861. Following his death on January 18, 1862, he was “denounced in the North as a traitor.”

Following the tragic death on July 9, 1850 of President Zachary Taylor (12th, 1849 – 1850), Vice President Millard Fillmore became President, and he immediately accepted the resignations from all members of President Taylor’s Cabinet and appointed pro-Union members who also shared his pro-compromise views, particularly on the Compromise of 1850 and on the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the return to their Southern owners of slaves who had escaped to the North, hoping to stall the secessionist movement. President Fillmore’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged many Northerners, who viewed the President as appeasing the South; however, he also directed that military installations in the South,particularly in South Carolina, be strengthened, which alienated the South and drew support from the North. Although it is debatable that “During the Civil War he opposed almost of President Lincoln’s policies,” following his term as president, Fillmore “became a staunch Unionist," helping to organize enlistment- and war-financing drives. When Fillmore died on March 8, 1874, “… he had been utterly forgotten by the American people: President Grant issued only a perfunctory statement on his death, and there would be no mourning by the American people.

The next President, Franklin Pierce, supported the Southern states’ positions on slavery and states’ rights, believing them to be constitutional, in an attempt to preserve the Union. During his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1853, he spoke about the threats to national unity by regional elements when he stated: “It is with me an earnest and vital belief that as the Union has been the source, under Providence, of our prosperity to this time, so it is the surest pledge of a continuance of the blessings we have enjoyed, and which we are sacredly bound to transmit undiminished to our children… Let it be impressed upon all hearts that, beautiful as our fabric [the Union] is, no earthly power or wisdom could every reunite its broken fragments.” A major source of antagonism among the Northern states, Southern states, and the northern and western territories was the issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories of Kansas and of Nebraska, which extended north to what would become the Canadian border. In May of 1854, Congress passed and President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted the settlers of these two territories to determine by popular vote whether or not they would allow slavery and had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this crucial period fraught with regional tensions, President Pierce also named Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America, as his Secretary of War. Pierce was viewed as a ”doughface,” that is, a Northerner with Southern sympathies, because of his pro-southern and pro-slavery political positions and support of states rights based on the Constitution as noted above. As a member of the Presidents Club, Pierce did not support newly-elected President Lincoln, blaming him for the Civil War, and criticized the Emancipation Proclamation and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as a loss of civil liberties. Immediately following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 15, 1865, President Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire, like President Fillmore’s home in Buffalo, New York, was surrounded by citizens who viewed these former presidents as being unsupportive of the Union cause during the Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant (18th, 1869 – 1877) proclaimed a day of National Mourning for former President Pierce, in contrast to former President Fillmore, on October 8, 1869 for his meritorious military service during the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848).

Two days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered a carefully reasoned opinion from the Supreme Court on the appeal case of Dred Scott vs John Sandford on March 6, 1857. Dred Scott, a slave who sued his owner for his freedom, lost the decision when seven of the nine Justices voted that no slave or descendant of a slave was or could become a citizen of the United States and was not protected by the Constitution, thus affecting every slave as well as every freed slave in the country. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional based on the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, effectively validating the spread of slavery into the northern and western territories. The carefully-worded last paragraph of the decision reads: “On the whole, therefore,it is the judgment of this court, that it appears by the record before us that the plaintiff [Dred Scott] in error is not a citizen of Missouri, in the sense in which that word is used in the Constitution; and that the Circuit Court of the United States, for that reason, had no jurisdiction in the case, and could give no judgment in it. Its judgment for the defendant [John Sandford] must,consequently be reversed, and a mandate issued, directing the suit to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.” The ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision were many and included compromising President Buchanan and his administration constitutionally, strengthening the political positions of the slave owners in affirming that slaves were in fact chattel property, encouraging the Southern States to extend the practice of slavery throughout the territories, alarming the Northern States on the probable expansion of slavery, and prompting Abraham Lincoln and the developing Republican Party to take public positions on slavery and abolition. President Buchanan, who was from Pennsylvania, was characterized as being a “doughface” in adopting pro-southern conciliatory positions on certain states’ rights and slavery-related issues even though he was identified as a Northern Democrat. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November, 1860, President Buchanan delivered his Fourth and last Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union on December 3, 1860. On the issue of slavery he said: “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other, and the time has arrived, so much dreaded by the Father of our Country, when hostile geographical parties have been formed.” Although both President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln believed that secession of the Southern States was unconstitutional and illegal, seven Southern States did secede from the Union between President Buchanan’s Fourth Annual Message to Congress and President Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. “Maintaining that he lacked power, the lame-duck Buchanan took no action to stop secession,which only emboldened the new Confederacy and gave seceding states time to setup a government.” During the Civil War, former President Buchanan supported President Lincoln and the Union cause for reunifying the United States. During his retirement at his estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he published a book in 1866 defending his administration (Mr.Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Civil War) and then “… all but vanished from public life. He retreated inside the walls of his home and saw only close friends.” He died on June 1, 1868.

All the members of this Presidents Club, including former Presidents Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, as well as President Abraham Lincoln took the same Oath of Office as mandated in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8): “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Certainly, all six members of the Presidents Club during President Lincoln’s first term were sincere and committed to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution when they took the Oath of Office. President Tyler in particular, who was out of office for 15 years, struggled valiantly to maintain his constitutional commitments made when he took the Oath of Office in 1841 during the 1861 Washington Peace Conference. In deference to the times, we must remember that the 30 years during which these Presidents served were extremely turbulent and divisive times for our country.The issues of states’ rights, slavery, territorial expansion, citizenship for slaves, and political parties were all intertwined and evolving with varying degrees of intensity as the political landscape changed markedly. The six words in the Oath of Office “to the best of my Ability” should not be overlooked. Clearly, each of the six members of the Presidents Club, while distinguished statesmen in their own right, had different leadership abilities shaped by their heritage and life experiences. Could it be that each member, in attempting to reach a compromise on any one of a myriad of issues at a particular point in time in the context of preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution, lacked certain abilities to lead our country and to manage the complex issues of the times? Certainly these scholarly dimensions have been, and will continue to be, debatable issues in our society.

In closing, rather than castigate the members of the Presidents Club for the decisions that they made, let us remember Orrin L.Gatchell’s admonition to his brother-in-law in his letter of February 2, 1863 in reference to former President Buchanan: “…I know that you possess a more charitable disposition than to condemn anyone for whatever offence that they may have committed against humanity …” and in the closing paragraph from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865: “… With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,…and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…

The statements and quotations above, which were chosen from a great body of presidential and judicial information, are inherently biased based on the authors’ selection and interpretations in the context of their book Orrin’s Story:  Patriotism and Love of Country. The Union Now and Forever. The authors welcome developing a dialogue on this blog post with others through the book’s website or by email to orrins.story@gmail.com.

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*Two previous presidents, William Henry Harrison (9th, 1841) and Zachary Taylor (12th, 1849 - 1850) had died within months after taking office.














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