President James Polk Led America’s Way to the Pacific

James Polk, a native of North Carolina, was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844.

By Jim O’Neal

On the east wall of the president’s office in the White House in 1845 hung a large map of the North American continent. Either Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren had acquired it and the geographical details were as accurate as science at the time could provide. This imposing map greeted James K. Polk when he entered the office as the newly elected president.

The map was printed in paper sections and glued to a linen backing. The eastern half showed the United States, with bold letters indicating ports, state capitals, large towns and turnpikes of the era. It was basically archaic, absent the new railroads and fast steamboat routes to the commercial hubs in New York, Pittsburg and New Orleans. However, the western half remained true to life, representing a vast land that lay wild and generally unused. For 300 years, Spanish landlords had largely left it undisturbed.

Now the Americans wanted it.

Their lust to possess was so strong and so emotional that it had the fervor of a religious awakening. With new territory, the republic would be free to expand, perpetuating Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a nation of farmers, counterbalancing the business and industry interests that dominated the urban East. In effect, it held the solution to saving the common man from the growing squalor of large, overcrowded cities. American expansion had not been a priority during Jackson’s tenure in office. In Polk’s, it was paramount.

The arrival of the Polks in Washington, D.C., in mid-February was greeted with more curiosity than enthusiasm. Polk was not well known as a public figure and everyone wanted to see the “dark horse” that had speared the presidency. He was only 49, the youngest president yet. Wife Sarah was a devout Presbyterian and loyal follower of the evangelical movement sweeping the United States. They quickly became viewed as partners in policy and politics, with strong views on important issues.

President Polk detested the idea of a National Bank, loathed the concept of big government and proved decidedly Southern, styling himself a true Jeffersonian. He expressed this comparison by moving David d’Anger’s bronze image of Thomas Jefferson from the Capitol to the White House lawn north portico, atop a pedestal of stucco brick. It remained there for 27 years, the only monument to a president ever to stand within the immediate enclosure of the White House.

However, the 1844 election had been about one grand issue: territorial expansion, with Mexico the obvious target. Manifest Destiny, a phrase popularized by Democrats to describe the sincere belief that the United States was divinely driven to rule from sea to sea, swept the nation. President Polk wholeheartedly endorsed the concept and as the annexation of Texas poisoned Mexican-American relations, the border between the two countries remained in dispute.

The United States claimed the Rio Grande as its southwest boundary and Mexico fixed it at the Nueces River. Polk dispatched John Slidell to Mexico to offer compensation for acceptance of the Rio Grande boundary, as well as an offer to purchase New Mexico and California. When this failed, Polk prepared for war by ordering General Zachary Taylor to bivouac 3,500 men in Texas. The Mexican Minister called the State Department for his passport and sailed home, severing diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The war arrived almost as if it was on a fixed schedule.

In April 1846, Mexican troops engaged Taylor’s forces in the disputed territory, thus providing Polk a concrete act of aggression on which to base his request for a Congressional declaration of war. On May 11, Polk charged “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Congress declared war two days later and General Taylor pressed south, defeating the enemy at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and then capturing Monterrey. Then General Winfield Scott took Vera Cruz and occupied Mexico City. In January 1847, California fell into American hands, leading to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the end of the war.

The border was fixed at the Rio Grande and Mexico relinquished all or parts of modern California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The United States acquired more than 500,000 square miles, the largest single annexation since the Louisiana Purchase. Mexico was reduced to half its former size.

Inevitably, the discussion then quickly switched to the issue of whether to allow slavery in the newly acquired territory, a debate that would linger long after President Polk retired after his four-year term of office, as promised before his election. There are no records I can find regarding the fate of that aspirational map that was hanging in his office when he arrived. It would have required significant revisions to reflect all the changes that occurred in four short years.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

No President has been Removed by Impeachment, Conviction

A 1996 letter President Clinton sent to a journalist, regarding an article that had moved the president, sold for $10,755 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 7, 1789, members of the Electoral College cast 69 votes for George Washington to become the first president of the United States, while John Adams, who finished in second place with 34 votes, became the first vice president.

These electors, who had been chosen by white men who were landowners in 10 states, also cast votes for John Jay (9), Robert Harrison (6), John Rutledge (6), Samuel Huntington (2), John Milton (2), Benjamin Lincoln (1), and Edward Telfair (1). Forty-four electors failed to cast a vote.

Bill Clinton

North Carolina and Rhode Island were ineligible since their statehood had not been ratified. New York did not appoint the eight electors they were eligible for since they were deadlocked in their state legislature.

We still use the Electoral College, as established by the Constitution, which has been modified several times and today gives all citizens age 18 and over the right to vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president and vice president (only). On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, each state’s electors simultaneously cast their ballots nationwide.

Then on Jan. 6, the electoral votes are counted before Congress and, finally, on Jan. 20, the president is sworn into office. In the case of George Washington, he wasn’t sworn in until April 30, 1789, since Congress didn’t count the electoral votes until April 6.

Exactly 210 years later, on Jan. 7, 1999, the impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton began in the U.S. Senate, with senators sworn in as jurors and Chief Justice William Rehnquist sworn in to preside. President Clinton was formally charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

Four years earlier, he had sexual relations with a 21-year-old unpaid intern in the White House before she was transferred to the Pentagon. Contrary to his sworn testimony in an unrelated sexual harassment case, President Clinton admitted to a grand jury (via closed-circuit television) that he had not been truthful.

On Dec. 11, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment. On Dec. 19, the full House approved two articles of impeachment: lying under oath to a grand jury and obstructing justice. On Feb. 12, the Senate voted on the perjury charge and 45 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted “not guilty.” On the charges of obstruction of justice, the Senate vote was split 50-50.

This was the third and last time the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted to impeach the president of the United States. Two were found not guilty (Andrew Johnston in 1868 and Bill Clinton), while a third, Richard Nixon, resigned to avoid what was an almost certain guilty verdict. (In 1834, the Senate voted to “censure” Andrew Jackson).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Thomas Hart Benton’s Influence Surpassed Nearly All Contemporaries

This $100 1882 Gold Certificate (Fr. 1214), featuring an image of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, sold for $88,125 at an April 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

During the winter of 1886-87, cattle rancher Theodore Roosevelt lost a lot of his money as the Dakota weather wiped out his herd. The one-time boy wonder of New York politics was now neither a boy nor a wonder anymore. At age 28, Roosevelt decided to return to writing. Through his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, he got a contract with Houghton Mifflin for a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri Senator and apostle of Western geographic expansion of the United States.

Like most authors, T.R. had moments of doubt, writing to Lodge, “I feel appalled over the Benton. Unsure if a flat failure or not. Writing is horribly hard work for me; and I make slow progress.” By June, he pleads with Lodge to send him some research material on Benton’s post-Senate time and receives enough help to finish the biography. The book didn’t break any new ground, but was a much better read than his ponderous Naval War of 1812.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is a well-known American painter and muralist, and subject of an eponymous 1988 documentary by Ken Burns. However, Roosevelt’s biography was about a great-uncle, Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), who was only slightly less well known and a giant when it comes to the topic of U.S. western expansion, commonly called Manifest Destiny (or God’s will).

Benton was a central figure in virtually all the major geographic additions after President Jefferson essentially doubled the U.S. land area in 1803 via the Louisiana Purchase from France. The modest $15 million price tag added areas that constitute 15 present states and small portions of two Canadian provinces.

T.H.B. was an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and then launched his own political career after the Compromise of 1820. This agreement permitted Maine (free) and Missouri (slave) to become U.S. states without disturbing the delicate balance in the Senate. Benton was one of Missouri’s first two Senators and his Senate career lasted 30 years.

He became the first Senator to serve five terms in office. His strong anti-slavery position prevented him from winning a sixth term, so he became a member of the House of Representatives.

He was the principal supporter behind the annexation of the Republic of Texas (1846) despite the slavery issue, which was rectified by negotiations for the Oregon Territory and anti-slavery provisos for the new areas seeking statehood after the war with Mexico. Benton further encouraged western expansion by legislating the first Homestead Act that offered free land to those who agreed to settle and live there.

It is easy to understand why Roosevelt selected him for a biography. Benton was not a great orator or writer, or even an original thinker. But his energy and industry, his indomitable will and fortitude, gave him an influence that surpassed nearly all contemporaries. Courteous, except when provoked, his courage was proof against all fear and he shrank from no contest, personal or political. At all times, he held every talent he possessed completely at the service of the Federal Union.

John F. Kennedy included Benton as one of the eight Senators he highlighted in his book Profiles In Courage, citing how Benton sacrificed his re-election to the U.S. Senate in a vain attempt to avoid disunion.

I suspect Teddy Roosevelt may have unwittingly adopted some of these personal traits for himself. They seem entirely familiar to the T.R. I admire and respect so deeply.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

U.S. Politics Has Rarely Seen a Character Like Aaron Burr

The signatures of Aaron Burr (above) and Alexander Hamilton sold for $2,500 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

During the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, there was a heated debate between delegates from southern and northern states over how to count slaves when determining a state’s population for both legislative representation and taxes. Finally, the “Three-Fifths Compromise” was reached, giving southern states one-third more seats in Congress and one-third more electoral votes than if slaves had been excluded.

In the presidential election of 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were able to defeat incumbent President John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney due to this single factor. However, under Electoral College rules of the day, it took 36 votes in the House of Representatives to make Jefferson president and Burr vice president. This caused a major rift between the two men. Then the relationship really turned bitter after Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.

Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither reached trial after courts overturned the grand jury indictment. Burr fled to Georgia, but returned to Washington, D.C., to complete his term as vice president and presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. The Senate refused to convict Chase and he remains the only Justice of the Supreme Court to be impeached.

This was followed by a bizarre series of events involving Burr that included a suspected conspiracy to recruit a group of volunteers for a military expedition down the Mississippi River, provoke a war with Spain, hoping to split off some western states, and create a new inland empire. The expedition collapsed almost immediately and a co-conspirator of Burr betrayed him by sending alarming messages to President Jefferson. Convinced of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson ordered his arrest and he was taken into custody and treason charges were filed. Burr escaped, but was recaptured and taken to Virginia for trial.

In Richmond, they learned the electrifying news that Burr, former VP of the U.S., had been accused of treason and his trial would be held in their courthouse. The trial of such a prominent person attracted legal officials from a broad area. Chief Justice John Marshall was picked to preside over the trial and Burr’s defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph (U.S. Attorney General under George Washington) and Charles Lee, Attorney General for John Adams. The chief prosecutor was James Monroe’s son-in-law, George Hay.

Notable witnesses included Andrew Jackson, a friend of Burr who thought Jefferson was maligning him and started picking fights with Jefferson’s friends – even challenging star witness General James Wilkerson to a duel. Wilkerson was the co-conspirator who provided the incriminating evidence to Jefferson.

The trial started on May 22, 1807, but despite all the intriguing circumstances, there was a lack of evidence as explicated by Judge Marshall and the jury declared the accused not guilty in September. Most observers conceded that the outcome was inevitable. However, Burr’s political career was finally ended and he left America on a self-imposed exile in Europe (presumably to escape his creditors!).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Winfield Scott Arguably the Most Astonishing Military Officer in U.S. History

A Winfield Scott “For President” daguerreotype from his unsuccessful 1852 bid for the presidency sold for $25,000 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Some historians have labeled him as remarkable, perhaps the most remarkable in American history. For more than 50 years, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army, wearing the stars of a general from 1814 until his death in 1866 at age 80. Following Andrew Jackson’s retirement from the Army in 1821, he served as the country’s most prominent general, stepping down in late 1861, six months after the start of the Civil War.

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812, conqueror of Mexico in a hazardous campaign, and Abraham Lincoln’s top soldier at the beginning of the Civil War, was born in Virginia in 1786. It was a time of “an innumerable crowd of those striving to escape from their original social condition,” as described by French observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Success rested on the possession of land, driving both ambitious Americans and their government west.

Winfield’s father died when he was 5, and his mother died in 1803 when he was 17 and on his own. By 1807, he had tired of schooling and joined a prominent law firm in Richmond, “riding the circuits” where he helped provide legal assistance to litigants. It was here that the governor of Virginia made an appeal for volunteers to the state militia after a British frigate intercepted an American ship to search for four deserters from His Majesty’s Navy … the famous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.

The people of the United States reacted with surprising violence, almost lynching British officers and attacking a nearby squadron. “For the first time in their history,” wrote American historian Henry Adams, “the people of the United States learned in June 1807 the feeling of a true national emotion.”

Public opinion forced President Thomas Jefferson to issue a proclamation requiring all armed British vessels to depart American waters. Then he called on all governors to furnish forces of 100 militia each. Winfield Scott felt an overwhelming urge to play a part and eagerly joined his fellow Virginians.

Thus began a long, storied military career, both during the consolidation of the nation and its expansion.

As a general, he was not the architect. It was President James Madison who attempted to unsuccessfully annex Canada in 1812. It was President Jackson who decided that American Indians east of the Mississippi must be moved to western lands following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (the infamous “Trail of Tears”). President John Tyler eventually settled the boundary dispute with Britain over the border between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. James K. Polk manipulated the War with Mexico that expanded the nation into the southwest. And President James Buchanan used General Scott to secure the San Juan Islands, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, during the Pig War between the United States and Great Britain.

For each of these presidents, the agent and builder, in contrast to the architect, was General Scott. In this role, Scott served under 14 presidents, 13 of them as a general officer. Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott lost his own bid for the presidency as the unsuccessful candidate for the Whigs in 1852. However, he certainly had the longest and most astonishing military career in U.S. history. And that includes all the other great men: Washington, Jackson, Grant, Lee, Eisenhower, etc.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bitter Enemies United Forever on Currency

This 1861 Confederate States of America $1000 Montgomery Note, featuring John Calhoun and Andrew Jackson, sold for $76,375 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Caldwell Calhoun served his full four years as vice president under John Quincy Adams, but the year was now 1828 and he needed to make a decision about his political future.

He previously had been a member of the House of Representatives (1811-17) and Secretary of War (1817-25). (He was later Secretary of State, and a U.S. Senator.)

He finally decided to run for the vice presidency again. But, in a twist, he decided to switch horses and run with Andrew Jackson rather than JQA. It seemed like a prudent choice at the time, and he and Jackson easily won the 1828 election. Then they started trying to work together.

They differed on so many fundamental issues, including states’ rights and nullification, that a schism seemed inevitable. Then, to make tensions even worse, his wife Floride Bonneau started meddling in White House politics … and Jackson’s famous temper was riled up. He even threatened to just grab Calhoun and hang him (another duel would have apparently been unseemly).

The end was much less dramatic, as Jackson simply picked Martin Van Buren to be his running mate in the 1832 presidential election. When they won, Calhoun resigned.

Calhoun would remain the only vice president to resign until Spiro Agnew joined the club.

On March 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America issued a $1,000 banknote depicting both Calhoun and Jackson. So the two bitter enemies remain joined for eternity.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Adamses First Presidential Couple to Mark their Golden Anniversary

Louisa Adams, shown in this oil portrait by Lawrence Williams, was our only First Lady born outside the United States.

By Jim O’Neal

Some presidential tidbits:

Three sets of presidents defeated each other:

► John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in 1824; Jackson defeated Adams in 1828.

► Martin Van Buren defeated William H. Harrison in 1836; Harrison defeated Van Buren in 1840.

► Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888; Cleveland defeated Harrison in 1892.

So much for the power of incumbency.

John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa were the first presidential couple to be married 50-plus years. She remains the only First Lady born outside the United States (London) and the first to write an autobiography, “Adventures of a Nobody.” When she died in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning (a first for a woman).

While in the Senate, John was “Professor of Logic” at Brown University and professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.

Herbert Clark Hoover was the last president whose term of office ended on March 4 (1933).

He married Lou Henry Hoover (the first woman to get a degree in geology at Stanford), and when they were in the White House, they conversed in Chinese whenever they wanted privacy.

Our 10th president, John Tyler, only served 31 days as VP (a record) before becoming president after William Henry Harrison’s death.

His wife Letitia was the first to die while in the White House. When John re-married, several of his children were older than second wife Julia.

Tyler’s death was the only one not officially recognized in Washington, D.C., because of his allegiance to the Confederacy. His coffin was draped with a Confederate flag.

Our sixth president, James Monroe, was the first senator elected president. His VP for a full eight years, Daniel D. Tompkins (the “D” stood for nothing), was an alcoholic who several times presided over the Senate while drunk. He died 99 days after leaving office (a post vice-presidency record).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Webster Certainly Belongs on the List of Our Greatest Senators

This 1853-dated bronze statue of Daniel Webster, measuring 29.75 inches, sold for $11,950 at a March 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) is perhaps best known for his book-length narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” (1928), about the Civil War abolitionist who raided the armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown and a group of 20-plus co-conspirators captured several buildings and weapons they hoped to use to start a slave uprising.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee led a contingent of Marines to quell the insurgency. Brown was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Harpers Ferry was at a busy crossroads, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and was the site of at least eight skirmishes while changing hands several times during the Civil War.

Benét also authored “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), a fictional story about a farmer who sells his soul to the devil (Mr. Scratch) and then refuses to pay up even after receiving a three-year extension on the agreement. Benét has Webster defend him in court due to his prodigious real-life record as a famous lawyer, statesman and orator. There are many other films, books and stories about similar Faustian-type bargains, but the use of Daniel Webster was a brilliant choice due to his superior debating skills and outstanding oratory.

In Benét’s trial, despite overwhelming evidence, the jury finds in favor of Mr. Webster’s client.

In virtually every aspect, the real-life Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was almost a true larger-than-life character, at least in American politics and especially in the formative era between 1812 and the Civil War. He played a critical role in virtually every significant issue confronting the new United States government.

Webster had no equal as an orator, either in those turbulent times or in the 200 years since then. Whether in the Supreme Court (240-plus cases), the U.S. Senate, or out on the political stump, he was simply the finest; a golden-tounged spellbinder. He enthralled audiences three to four hours at a time, always in defense of the Union and the sacred U.S. Constitution.

He generated almost god-like respect and was universally considered to be a cinch to be president; particularly in his own mind. His weakness was aligning with the Whigs and a seemingly improvident inability to manage personal finances (and alcohol, as usual). He was also an elitist at a time when Andrew Jackson’s brand of populism was growing, much like the present. He was often referred to as “Black Dan” because of his political conniving.

He missed a perfect chance to be president by refusing to run as vice president in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, who defeated Martin Van Buren but died 31 days after his inauguration.

1841 was the first “Year of Three Presidents.” It began with the defeated Van Buren, followed by Harrison, and then Vice President John Tyler, who had himself sworn in immediately as president after a brief Constitutional crisis following Harrison’s death.

This phenomenon occurred again in 1881. After Rutherford B. Hayes finished his term, new President James A. Garfield took over. When Garfield succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in September, VP Chester A. Arthur moved into the White House … this time with little controversy.

So Daniel Webster never realized his ambition to become president, but any time there is a discussion about our greatest senators, you may be assured that Daniel Webster will be on everyone’s Top 5, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun … two more who never quite got to wear the Presidential Crown. Sadly, we do not have any actual recordings of these great orators, but it is tantalizing to think of them in today’s contemporary politics and to judge them in this age of new media.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Shortly After His Inauguration, Wilson Pivoted and Entered World War I

This World War I Tank Corps recruitment poster, issued by the U.S. government in 1917, sold for $8,962.50 at a July 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 31, 1917, Germany’s Navy Admiral Eduard von Capelle assured his nation’s parliament, Americans “will not even come, because our submarines will sink them. Thus America from a military point of view means nothing, and again nothing and for a third time nothing.”

American President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected just months earlier on a campaign slogan of, “He kept us out of war.” Although the Germans were regularly sinking American ships in the Atlantic, Wilson had consistently declared, “America is too proud to fight.” However, a month after his inauguration, he led Congress to vote to enter World War I.

The 1916 presidential election was almost as bizarre as the one we suffered through in 2016. In this case, an incumbent president (Wilson) was running against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate. Wilson’s win was the first time a Democratic Party candidate had won two consecutive presidential elections since Andrew Jackson (1832).

But before the election, Democrats were so uncertain about their chances that they developed a radical plan to avoid leaving a potential four-month, lame-duck vacuum with war raging in Europe. It consisted of appointing president-elect Hughes (if he had won) as Secretary of State, followed by the resignation of Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall. This would allow the new president to take residence in the WH immediately and avoid the gap until the scheduled March 1917 inauguration.

The Progressive Republicans had already essentially forfeited their chances by selecting Teddy Roosevelt for president and he had sent a telegram refusing their offer. The vice presidential candidate had already decided to support Hughes so that was out as well.

Admiral Capelle’s “they will never come” statement became one of history’s worst declarations when on May 29, the Allies launched a three-hour barrage of fire that exceeded what both sides fired during the entire four-year Civil War. The $180 million equated to $1 million of ordnance every 60 seconds. I suspect the folks in Afghanistan recently experienced something similar.

You can never tell about these American presidents.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As Civil War Loomed, Buchanan Failed to Act, Assumed the Worst

James Buchanan Carte de Visite Signed
This James Buchanan carte de visite, signed and dated September 1866, sold for $6,572.50 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Buchanan was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and represented Pennsylvania for 11 years during the administrations of presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and Tyler. He turned down offers to serve as U.S. attorney general for Van Buren and an appointment to the Supreme Court by Tyler. After campaigning for Polk in the election of 1844, he finally accepted the position of secretary of state, since it seemed like a clear path to the presidency.

This was a bad decision and when he and President Polk could not agree on major issues, Buchanan would complain to a friend, “My life is that of a galley slave.”

Buchanan then failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1848 and 1852, but at the age of 62, was given the post of U.S. Minister to Great Britain. There, he gained unexpected notoriety when he secretly joined with other ministers (Pierre Soulé in Spain and John Mason in France) to draft the infamous “Ostend Manifesto,” which proposed to buy Cuba from Spain. If Spain refused, then “we shall be justified in wresting” the island from its owners … a strong inference of war.

Cuba was especially important to Southern Democrats since it was primarily a plantation-slave economy based on sugar and having it as a state would add two senators and nine members to the House of Representatives. However, anti-slave Northerners were not about to go to war with Spain to add more slave states to the Union and the effort was easily defeated.

At the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in June 1856, Buchanan bounced back, winning the nomination and then the election.

Two days after Buchanan was sworn in as president, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which affirmed the right of slave owners to take their slaves into Western territories. This bolstered Buchanan’s belief that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence; it was an issue for each state to decide.

Then came the Panic of 1857, which was caused by the failure of Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati. The sudden demise of a once-solid institution touched off a wave of bank runs across the nation that plunged the nation into a deep economic depression. Many railroads failed due to over-expansion as did many state banks that were operating under flimsy regulations. The only areas that were unaffected were the cotton-growers exporting to England (and they needed more slaves to expand production).

It was clear that the slavery issue would lead directly to a civil war and James Buchanan was too inept or unwilling to provide leadership to avoid one. He just assumed the worst and declared that he “would be the last president of a United States.”

Fortunately, he was wrong, but it would take four long years and 620,000 dead Americans to prevent it.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].