Jefferson Davis was a Genuine War Hero When He Arrived in the Senate

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation.

By Jim O’Neal

Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. He returned home from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from the family cotton plantation, put his books on a table, and told his father he would not return. Samuel Davis shrugged and told his youngest son that he would now have to work with his hands rather than his brain. At dawn the next day, he gave young Jeff a large, thin cloth bag, took him to the cotton field and put him in a long line with the family slaves picking cotton.

Three days later, he was back at Wilkinson, happily reading and taking notes with his bandaged hands.

By 16, Jefferson had mastered Latin and Greek, was well read in history and literature, and eager to study law at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spent four years at West Point, graduated in the bottom third of his class and then entered the Army. He was 20 years old and fighting in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation. A true war hero at age 36, he was recognized by everyone and warmly greeted by all he met. After all, Jeff Davis was the first genuine war hero in the Senate in its entire 58 years!

His rise to prominence occurred as one generation of leaders died or retired – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster – and a younger one was set to take over, led by Stephen Douglas (39), Andrew Johnson (39), Alexander Stephens (35), Salmon P. Chase (39) and William Seward (35).

Jeff Davis began to give important speeches in the Senate and everyone sensed he had a future in politics.

The Senate proved comfortable and prestigious, providing an intimate venue to discuss and debate the great issues of the time. Yet despite all the exciting opportunities facing the young nation, the hard fact was that slavery was a pernicious issue lurking in the shadows. It was like a cancer that seemed to grow more lethal after every “compromise” designed to resolve it.

An example was the fateful Compromise of 1850, intended to resolve the four-year controversy over the status of the new territories that accrued to the U.S. after the war with Mexico. California was admitted as a free state, and Texas had slaves, but had to surrender its claim to New Mexico. Utah and New Mexico were granted popular sovereignty (self-determination) and there was a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law (destined to be revoked by the Dred Scott reversal).

Jeff Davis felt so strongly that slavery was a 200-year tradition (to be decided by individual states) and detested the 1850 Compromise so much that he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, confident this would enhance his national visibility, send a strong message to the North and bolster any wavering Southerners. The strategy failed when he lost the election, leaving him with no political office.

Davis bounced back into the Senate by one vote and new President Franklin Pierce (1852) selected him to be Secretary of War, a powerful position to resist the continuous threat from the North to impose their will on the South by any means necessary. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act just roiled the opposing forces and thoughts of secession were like dry kindling waiting for the proverbial spark. First was President James Buchanan (1856), a Democrat who seemed helpless or resigned to the inevitability of war.

As abolition forces gained momentum and the South grew even more resolute that they would not concede a principle that states’ rights trumped Federal aggression, it was only a question of how or what set of events would tip the nation into a civil war. The answer was in plain sight.

In the critical election year of 1860, though still hopeful of a peaceful settlement on slavery, Davis told an audience that if Republicans won the White House, the Union would have to be dissolved. “I love and venerate the Union of these states,” he said, “but I love liberty and Mississippi more.” When asked if Mississippi should secede if another state did, he roared, “I answer yes!” And if the U.S. Army tried to suppress it? Davis answered even more vehemently. “I will meet force with force!”

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

The slavery issue was simply not resolvable by anything but force. Few foresaw how much force would be needed and the enormous carnage and loss of life involved. War always seems to be much more than anticipated. The 20th century would really amp it up and the 21st century has gotten off to a rocky start, as well.

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].

Death has Taken Eight Presidents, Yet Nation has Survived

Few items were produced to honor John Tyler’s presidency. This Tyler presidential silk ribbon sold for $6,250 at a May 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Tyler was the first person to become president of the United States without being elected to that office. He had been elected vice president in 1840 and when President William Henry Harrison died 31 days after being inaugurated, Tyler became president. However, it was not without controversy, since the Constitution was not explicit on the transition of powers in the event of death.

President Harrison’s Cabinet had met one hour after his death and determined that Tyler would be “vice president acting president.” Others, like former President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, argued the vice president should become a caretaker until the next election under the title “acting president.”

Even Tyler’s selection as vice president had not been broadly popular, but the office was considered so inconsequential that there was not much interest. All of the previous nine presidents had served their entire terms of office. Perhaps New York newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed summed it up best: “Tyler was finally selected since no one else would take it.”

However, Tyler moved quickly and arranged to take the presidential oath of office in his hotel room and then simply asserted his legal right to be president. This maneuver worked, but his time in office was rocky and generally unproductive. His entire Cabinet resigned (except Secretary of State Daniel Webster). The Congressional Whigs booted him out of the party and overrode one of his vetoes (a historical first). A man without a party, he went home when his term ended in 1845, turning the keys over to James Polk.

The idea of “one heartbeat away from the presidency” became a factor in future vice president selections, although in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ignored it when he chose Henry Agard Wallace for his running mate. This caused an uproar at the Democratic Convention and the boos and catcalls were so prevalent that Wallace decided not to make the traditional acceptance speech. He relied on FDR to ram his nomination through by making veiled threats not to run a third time.

Fortunately, in 1944, FDR dropped Wallace from the Democratic ticket and replaced him with Harry S. Truman. Eighty-two days later, FDR was dead and Vice President Truman took his place. Most historians agree that the post-war period would have turned out significantly different had this mundane change not occurred.

The presidency has changed eight times due to the death of a president and so far, we are still the most remarkable country in the history of the world!

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].

President Tyler’s Extreme Use of His Veto Alienated Political Leaders

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As vice president, John Tyler assumed the presidency after William Henry Harrison’s death shortly after taking office. Tyler served the remaining three years and 11 months of Harrison’s term.

By Jim O’Neal

The election year of 1844 found President John Tyler in the awkward position of having no political party willing to nominate him for re-election. Tyler’s extreme use of his veto pen had alienated the Whigs, who were exasperated with his stubbornness and unwillingness to negotiate.

Earlier in February, the president, his cabinet members and several hundred prominent individuals (including Dolley Madison) were on the new steam-powered warship the USS Princeton when a gun’s celebratory shot exploded. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead, including Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and ex-New York Senator David Gardiner.

Tyler ordered the bodies taken to the White House and laid in state in the East Room, where the funerals were held before burial in the Congressional Cemetery. Gardiner’s daughter Julia had been carried from the ship by President Tyler and chose to stay on at the White House to fully recuperate. Tyler’s first wife Letitia was the first First Lady to die in the White House and the president struck up a relationship with (the now-wealthy) Julia Gardiner. They were married four months later on June 16, 1844, causing quite a stir in the social circles of Washington. Tyler was 54 and Julia was 30 years younger. Over the years, she would bear seven children to join the eight from the earlier marriage.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. Then they received word that James Knox Polk was former President Andrew Johnson’s choice and so “Young Hickory” Polk was picked unanimously on the ninth ballot. When Polk’s nomination was flashed from Baltimore to Washington by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph – the first official use of this new communication tool – Washington observers were sure the instrument had failed because the news was not plausible. Henry Clay, the Whig nominee, sarcastically asked, “Who is James K. Polk?”

It was a close contest, but Polk became the first “Dark Horse” candidate to win and the only Speaker of the House (ever) to be elected president. The 49-year-old Polk was also the youngest man to ever become president – to that time – when he took the oath of office on a rainy March 4, 1845. However, three days earlier on March 1, Congress passed a joint House-Senate resolution approving the annexation of Texas and Tyler signed it. And on his last day in office, Tyler also signed legislation admitting Florida as the 27th state.

On the same day, March 3, Congress mustered enough votes (two-thirds in each house) to override one of Tyler’s vetoes … the first time in history a presidential veto had been overridden. Immediately after Polk’s inauguration, Tyler and his family left for Virginia. Two days later, the Mexican minister to Washington filed a protest, calling the annexation of Texas an “act of aggression.” Mexico broke off diplomatic relations and the Mexican War soon followed.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.

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].

The 1850s Represented a Challenging Time for America

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U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis presented this gold pocket watch to Franklin Pierce the year Pierce was nominated for president. Pierce was Davis’ favored candidate since Pierce had not openly opposed slavery. This watch sold for $15,535 at a June 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

jefferson-davis-and-franklin-pierceIn 1819, the United States was a divided nation with 11 states that permitted slavery and an equal number that did not. When Missouri applied for admission to join the Union as a slave state, tensions escalated dramatically since this would upset the delicate balance. It would also set a precedent by establishing the principle that Congress could make laws regarding slavery, a right many believed was reserved for the states.

In an effort to preserve harmony, Congress passed a compromise that accepted Missouri as a slave state and Massachusetts would be divided (creating Maine) and admitted as a free state. The passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 earned U.S. Senator Henry Clay the nickname of the “Great Pacificator.”

It was the first real crisis over the slavery issue and kicked the can all the way to the 1850s, however, observers like Thomas Jefferson were profoundly upset. He said just the threat of disunion in 1820 caused him to be apprehensive about the future. He foresaw the potential for civil war, saying, “My God, this country is going to have a blow up. When it hits us, it’s going to be like a tornado.”

Those words would prove to be eerily prophetic.

By the 1850s, the disagreement had splintered into a five-way dispute. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans arguing with the Southern Democrats. The Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, versus the Southern Democrats through Jefferson Davis. There were heated arguments between Frederick Douglass (and the political abolitionists) and William Lloyd Garrison, who favored non-violent moral suasion, and both against the non-political-process abolition that led to John Brown’s violent actions.

The War with Mexico (1846-48) had fueled these contentious debates since there was no consensus on how to treat the vast new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico or even Texas. After years of wrangling, the Compromise of 1850 put a bandage on it and several other lingering issues (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act, the banning of slave trade in Washington, D.C.). Neither side was satisfied, but the Union remained intact.

However, the tentative peace was fleeting. When the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, with cooperation between U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, the inevitability of a civil war was finally a stark reality. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw and seven Southern states seceded, even before his inauguration, to form a new confederacy.

Formal hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Federal seaport of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and would not end for four bloody years. Even Jefferson’s metaphor of a tornado never contemplated the death and destruction that took place.

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]

Let’s Not Forget that America Remains a Unique Place

medal-struck-for-henry-clay
A U.S. Mint medal struck for presentation to Henry Clay in 1852 sold for $346,000 at a September 2016 auction.

 

By Jim O’Neal

The 1800 census reported 5.3 million people living in the United States – more than twice the number in the colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution. There were four cities with populations greater than 10,000 – Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Half of all Americans were under 16 years old.

The men and women who were born between 1776 and 1800 would not have had any contact with the colonial era. They would have none of the sensibilities of having been subjects of the King of England. They were the inheritors of the revolution and took seriously that they had inherited a remarkable revolution. They intended to demonstrate to a world of monarchs what democracy, what a democratic society could truly be.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence was the most pervasive in this generation and was constantly the subject of discussion. The statesman Henry Clay loomed as a hero as did DeWitt Clinton, because of his leadership in building the Erie Canal. Jefferson was important because he so clearly articulated a different conception of what a republic could be and he had a unique vision of how human beings could participate in their society. He is a point of reference throughout this period.

Once the Revolutionary War was won, there was an outpouring of people into the western parts of New York, Virginia, Georgia and Pennsylvania. By 1820-1830, people primarily farmed since 85 percent lived in rural areas.

Then came the shift to commerce, manufacturing and the professions – medical, teaching, preaching, legal. This required an infrastructure of teachers as literacy spread almost everywhere. Railroads, canals, steamboats and roads were all enablers of this new society, allowing it to flourish and grow.

The military was small, other than the swelling for the War of 1812, but troops quickly demobilized from 70,000 back down to 14,000. West Point was teaching civil engineering, with military people participating in economic life via the railroads and canals. Each veteran received 160 acres of land and they pushed further west.

In the North, almost everyone was educated, including free blacks. In the South, fewer were educated, but there were lots of academics for planters’ children. When the British writers Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens toured America, they found a society that was intoxicatingly free and saw things they loved: the outpouring of human energy, voluntary association at will, the zeal of forming a society to determine America’s character.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin when asked what the founders had created: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

The first generation of Americans did a pretty fair job and we are still reaping the benefits of their efforts. I hope this generation does as well in keeping the flame of liberty burning brightly. America is still a unique place on Earth.

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].

1824 Presidential Election Among Strangest in History

Henry Clay was among the presidential candidates in 1824. This folk art campaign portrait of Clay sold for $9,375 in May 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

The 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was added to clear up some fuzzy rules for presidential elections that popped up in both 1796 and 1800.

In addition to requiring separate votes for president and vice president, it added procedures for the House of Representatives if no candidate received a majority of votes. The Amendment was proposed by Congress in 1803 and then ratified by the requisite three-fourths of states in June 1804. It was easier to gain consensus in those early days.

For the next 20 years, things went smoothly as Virginians continued to occupy the White House. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all served two terms with no controversies, at least regarding elections.

Then came 1824.

To begin, all the candidates were from the same party … the Democratic-Republican. Tennessee nominated Andrew Jackson (born in North Carolina). Kentucky chose Henry Clay. William Crawford got a nomination from Georgia, albeit from a splinter group. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina ignored state officials and nominated himself. And finally, John Quincy Adams (the eventual winner) was the conventional “favorite son” from Massachusetts following in his father’s footsteps.

Then the fun started.

First, Calhoun quickly realized he didn’t have broad support and withdrew from the presidential race. However, in a twist, he nominated himself for vice president for both Jackson and Adams, which ensured him a victory.

Crawford suffered a stroke, but remained in the race, finishing in third place. Adams finished a disappointing second in both the popular and electoral votes.

Jackson had the highest number of popular votes and ended up with the most electoral votes. However, since the votes were split four ways, he did not have a majority (more than 50 percent).

The new rules threw the election into the House of Representatives, except Clay was eliminated since only the three top electoral vote-getters were eligible for the runoff. A great controversy then erupted when Clay, who was Speaker of the House, switched Kentucky’s vote from Jackson to Adams, giving him the office … thus making Andrew Jackson the only person to win both the popular and electoral votes and lose the election.

Then John Q. Adams made Henry Clay the Secretary of State in what has become known as the infamous “corrupt bargain.” No proof has ever surfaced of this quid pro quo, but Andrew Jackson certainly believed it … so much so that he resigned from the Senate and spent the next three years plotting against Adams.

It apparently worked, since he vanquished JQA in 1828 and then won again in 1832.

If this year’s nominating process and campaigns seem to border on the bizarre, you would be right. Just consider how 1824 would compare if they had been cursed with 24/7 cable TV.

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].

Today’s Political Schisms Would Not Surprise George Washington

A painting by Jeremiah Paul Jr. (d. 1820) depicting George Washington taking leave of his family as he assumes command of U.S. forces during the “quasi-war” with France in 1798, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

George Washington was a staunch opponent of political parties due to the corrosive effect he (strongly) believed they would have on all levels of government.

As president, Washington worked hard to maintain a non-partisan political agenda, despite significant differences that existed right in his cabinet.

His 1796 farewell address was replete with advice to the country, and by extension, to future leaders. One prominent warning was to avoid the formation of political factions that would pose a danger to the effectiveness of government (think gridlock in Washington, D.C.). A second peril was entanglements with foreign governments, since they inevitably lead to war. The examples here start with the War of 1812, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and end with the Russian threats to NATO, the China Sea and the remarkably complex situation in the Middle East and North Korea.

After Washington’s retirement, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton ignored his sage advice and wasted little time confronting the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Adams became the first (and last) Federalist president. He was easily defeated in 1800, after one term, by Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Adams finished a dismal third and the Federalists gradually faded into irrelevance.

The Democratic-Republicans put together a nice run of three Virginia presidents – Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe – however, the party lacked a strong center and split four ways. Next was an alliance between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of the National Republican Party, which only won a single election in 1824 that required the House to settle. When Andrew Jackson defeated Clay in 1832, the party was absorbed into the Whigs … a diverse group of anti-Jackson politicos.

Then the Whig Party fell apart in the 1850s over the issue of the expansion of slavery in the new territories. In fact, after the 1854 election, the largest party in the House of Representatives was the Opposition Party, with 100 members, followed by 83 Democrats and 51 American Party members (the Know Nothings).

These parties never seem to last long (thankfully).

Next it was the New Republican Party’s turn (the Party of Lincoln) until another major kerfuffle occurred in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft managed to divide the Republican Party enough to let Democrat Woodrow Wilson win the White House … until he had a stroke and his wife took over.

A century later, we appear to be in another political schism, with a socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, on the Democrat Party side and on the other, Donald “The Wall” Trump, who claims to have part of the Republican Party supporting him. It is not clear which part.

Only one thing seems certain. Thanks to President Washington, we were warned!

P.S. As history teaches … this too shall pass.

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].