The Presidents’ War – Book Review
“For the first time, experience America’s gravest crisis through the eyes of the five former presidents who live it. Author Chris DeRose chronicles history’s most epic presidential melee, as a record number of living presidents challenged, advised, supported, and opposed Abraham Lincoln while he struggled to preserve the Union and destroy slavery.”—From the book jacket
The publisher of The Presidents’ War presents Chris DeRose’s work as a study of how the five living presidents of the time gave Abraham Lincoln as much trouble as the seceded Southern states. So how did Lincoln navigate and survive the political intrigue generated by these agenda-driven ex-presidents? Quite easily as it turns out.
Before giving my thoughts, let’s look at the cast:
Martin Van Buren (1872- 1862), Democrat and one of the most distinguished politicians in America at the time. An Albany-area attorney, he became a New York state senator, the state’s attorney general, a U.S. Senator, New York’s governor, U.S. Secretary of State, vice president, and president number 8 (1837-1841). One of the founders of the Democratic Party, Van Buren considered slavery morally wrong, but as it was sanctioned in the Constitution little could be done about it. Van Buren worked against Lincoln in the 1860 election but supported him once the war began.
John Tyler (1790-1862). Whig and 10th president (1841-1845). Tyler was an opponent to American nationalism and a States Rights’ booster who became immensely disliked while president. After the presidency, Tyler retired to his Virginia estate and remained largely out of sight, but he re-entered public life on the eve of war as chairman of the Virginia Peace Convention. The convention sought a compromise to avoid civil war even as the Confederate Constitution was being drawn up at the Montgomery (Alabama) Convention.
But when the Peace Convention’s proposals were rejected by Congress, Tyler abandoned hope of compromise and saw secession as the only way to preserve Southern rights against rampant abolitionism. When the war broke out, Tyler sided with Virginia and worked behind the scenes to push her out of the Union. Tyler left with his state and the former American president became a delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress but died before the opening session.
Millard Fillmore (1800-1870) 13th president (1850-1853). The last Whig elected president. An anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore opposed abolitionist demands to exclude slavery from all of the territory gained in the Mexican War. Instead he supported the Compromise of 1850, which briefly ended the crisis.
As the South began leaving the Union in 1860, Fillmore denounced secession and generally supported the Union war effort but also became a constant critic of the war policies of President Lincoln, such as the Emancipation Proclamation. Fillmore maintained a correspondence with Franklin Pierce, who also agreed that Lincoln had overstepped his authority and found ways to thwart Lincoln’s war policies. However, Fillmore was still an outspoken critic of secession and blamed President James Buchanan for not immediately taking military action when South Carolina seceded.
Fillmore was more visible than other ex-presidents and helped raise, and then command, the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards comprised of males over the age of 45 from the upstate New York area. The Continentals trained to defend the Buffalo area in the event of a Confederate attack such as the St. Albans Raid into Vermont that occurred in 1864. The Continentals performed military drill and ceremonial functions at parades and funerals, including Lincoln’s in 1865. Fillmore remained active with the Continentals almost until his death.
In 1864 Fillmore supported the Democratic Party’s candidate George B. McClellan for the presidency and the party’s plan for an immediate cessation of hostilities, allowing the seceded states to return with slavery intact.
Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) 14th president (1837-1842) Democrat. Pierce was a Pro-Slavery Northerner who, as president, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. When war clouds gathered, Pierce wrote to Van Buren, proposing an assembly of former U.S. presidents to resolve the secession issue, but this went nowhere.
Pierce publicly opposed President Lincoln’s order suspending the writ of habeas corpus, arguing that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. While this stand won him admirers among Northern Peace Democrats, others saw this opposition as further evidence of Pierce’s southern bias.
In mid-1863, Pierce’s public defense of Ohio-based Copperhead Clement Vallandigham and criticism of Lincoln’s policies was ill-received in much of the North, especially when it coincided with the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Pierce’s reputation in the North was further damaged in August when Union soldiers seized Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi plantation. Letters were found in Davis’s house that revealed a deep friendship between the two men. Released to the press, Pierce’s pre-war missives hardened abolitionist sentiment against him.
James Buchanan (1791-1868). 15th president (1857-1861) and a Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies, Buchanan battled Stephen A. Douglas for the control of the Democratic Party—a battle that did much to fracture the Democratic ticket, leading to Lincoln’s election.
During the “Secession Winter” of 1860-61, Buchanan’s efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South alienated both sides, and when the Southern states declared their secession, Buchanan felt powerless to stop it. As an attorney, Buchanan considered secession illegal, but so was going to war to stop it. Buchanan supported Tyler’s Virginia Peace Convention, and when it failed he attempted in vain to procure President-elect Lincoln’s call for a constitutional convention or national referendum to resolve the issue of slavery.
Once the Civil War began, Buchanan supported it, writing that since the Confederates attacked first, the country was duty-bound to oppose them. He also wrote letters to his fellow Pennsylvania Democrats, urging them to enlist and fight for Lincoln.
Still, Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War. In 1862 he began writing his memoirs, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, published in 1866.
Now, back to The Presidents’ War. If it had been written about any other period in American history, it probably would have lived up to the publisher’s claim. The problem is that the presidency, and the role of the men serving, was different in the mid-19th century. Presidents were not supposed to be partisan activists but compromisers, especially in regard to Northern/Southern relations. Once one became ex-president, it was deemed unseemly to interfere, offer advice, or comment on political matters. To be fair, DeRose—whose previous books include Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President and Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election that Saved a Nation—makes this clear; in fact, DeRose doesn’t attempt to present The Presidents’ War as a political thriller at all. Too bad; it would have been much more exciting if it were. As it stands, it’s simply an interesting study of an unusual set of circumstances. The President’s War is a good history but, thorough and well written as it is, it still it does not satisfy. DeRose didn’t convince me that any of the ex-presidents were more than a minor annoyance to the Lincoln administration. Of the five, only Tyler and Buchanan had any real impact. Tyler became a fire-eating advocate of Virginia’s secession while Buchanan, as president, helped flame the slavery issue by encouraging Chief Justice Roger Taney’s overly broad Dred Scott decision, and his intrigues against Douglas helped split the Democrats in the 1860 election. The book would have been more interesting if DeRose had ignored the others and concentrated on these two exes.
The fact that the five ex-presidents were not enthusiastic Lincoln supporters is not very surprising; all were either Whigs or Democrats; Lincoln was the first president from the recently created Republican Party (which had drawn many of its members from people who were formerly Whigs, including Lincoln himself, but many former Whigs did not agree with the Republican Party’s pro-abolition stand). What is surprising is how little impact these ex-presidents had out of office. This explains perhaps why so much of the book’s 316 pages reads like filler material. DeRose actually had very little to work with that was important. The five ex-presidents wrote, made speeches, and some at least attempted to make a difference, but in the end, neither Lincoln nor the country, needed them.
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland. Mr. West volunteered at Manassas National Battlefield for over a decade conducting tours and historic weapons demonstrations. He has a BA in American Military History and a Master’s Degree in Military History with a Civil War concentration.