Book Reviews
                               The Presidents' War :
        Six American Presidents and the Civil War that divided them
                                By  Christopher DeRose
           Published by Lyons Press,  an imprint of  Globe Pequot Press

      This book deals with an interesting aspect of the U.S. Civil War. Namely,  
the relationships among the six men who had occupied the Presidency prior to and
during the conflict, each of whom was alive when the guns of Fort Sumter fired.   
They were, in order of their Presidency and dates of incumbency:

Name                                                                 Presidential Term
Martin Van Buren of New York                     ( 1837-1841 )-  8th President
John Tyler of Virginia                                    ( 1841-1845 )- 10th President
Millard Fillmore of New York                        ( 1850- 1853 )- 13th President
Franklin Pierce  of New Hampshire                ( 1853- 1857)- 14th President
James Buchanan of Pennsylvania                   (  1857-  1861)- 15th President
Abraham Lincoln  of Illinois                           (  1861-  1865)- 16th President
      The story begins with a banquet held in Washington D.C. in 1830.  Vice
President John Calhoun of South Carolina offered a toast to State Rights and the
Doctrine of Nullification, the latter being an interpretation of the Constitution by
which States Legislatures had the right to eliminate laws passed by the Federal
Congress.  President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee responded to this                
challenge by offering a toast which affirmed the Supremacy of the Federal
Government and the Union. This strife had come about due to the imposing of
Tariffs by the Congress, which South Carolina's legislature voted to nullify.  The
orgin of the Doctrine of Nullification had  its origins in Resolutions by the
Legislatures of Kentucky ( authored by Thomas Jefferson ) and Virginia
( authored by James Madison ) in the 1790s in opposition to the Alien and
Sedition Acts.
      This banquet, thus, can be cited as a crucial point in U.S. History.  The
United States was either a Union of States, as Calhoun and his minions posited, or
a nation, as Jackson and his followers asserted.  Calhoun was to resign from the
Vice Presidency and assume a seat in the U.S. Senate shortly there after.  This
was the first time in U.S. History that the Vice Presidency was vacant.  
      The unique feature of " The President's War" which this reader found of
interest is that the intermingling of the lives and careers of each of these six men is
told.  Marin Van Buren, who was Jacksons' Cromwell ( or as one of this writer's
college history profs noted " Jacksons' go to and hatchet man"), was Secretary of
State, Vice- President, and President. John Tyler was a Governor of Virginia and
a U.S Senator who had opposed Jackson's policies and, along with other rebellious
Democrats, formed the Whig Party.  James Buchanan, during this period, was a
U.S.. Senator from the Keystone State and was also U.S Minister to Russia.  
Tyler, who assumed the Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison
( whose term of office lasted only one month from March to April of 1841),  
managed to alienate his own Whig Party to such a degree that he had to turn to
the Democrats to  annex Texas, a move which Van Buren, then an ex-President
hoping to run for re-election, opposed.  This so incited Andrew Jackson that he
maneuvered to have his protege, James K. Polk, nominated and elected in 1845.   
Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore were in and out of the Senate and the House
of Representatives during the incumbency of both Van Buren  and Tyler.
      At this stage, a young Whig Congressman who had served four terms in the
Illinois lower legislature,ie., the Assembly, enters the picture when he opposes
President Polks'  foray into Mexico.  Abraham Lincoln not only spoke in
opposition to the deployment of American Forces into the conflict, he introduces a
bill called " The Spot Resolution " which challenges the integrity of President
Polk's assertion of where the Mexican-American War started as well as why it
started.  The victory of  the American Forces and the gaining of the second largest
territorial gain in U.S. History ( the largest being the Louisiana Purchase
engineered by President Jefferson and his administration in 1803 ) pretty much put
Lincoln out of the national spotlight for several years, during which time he
returned to his law practice in Springfield, Illinois.  
      James Buchanan had been President Polks' Secretary of State during this
period.  Van Buren and Tyler were retired to private life. Pierce, who had resigned
from politics to save his marriage,  had gained hero status as a Mexican American
War general. Along comes Millard Fillmore in 1850. He assumes the Presidency
upon the death of Zachary Taylor.  Fillmore, who had been nominated by the
Whig Party to balance the ticket as a northern candidate for Vice President along
with Louisianan Taylor,  had to deal with the fractious Compromise of 1850,  
which Taylor had opposed but Fillmore believed had to be signed in order to keep
the Union from dis- membering.   The only accomplishment of that law was        
it provided the Northern and Midwestern States 11 years to industrialize and
develop the railroad network which enabled the Union side in the Civil War to
prevail.  Fillmore, as noted, held his nose and signed it.
      Franklin Pierce,  who, as noted above, had returned to private life, was
nominated as a Dark Horse candidate at the Democratic Convention, assumed
office and proceeded to widen the fissure with his endorsement of Stephen
Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This law voided the Compromise of 1850 and
set off the bloody Kansas war, a harbinger of the blood to be shed. It was this law
which incited Abraham Lincoln to re-enter politics.  James Buchanan. meanwhile,
was living in London, appointed by Pierce as Minister to Great Britain and was
thus absent from the national scene for four crucial years with respect to his
political fortunes.  The dissatisfaction with Pierce was so great that his own party
refused to nominate him for re-election in 1857, instead nominating the absent
from the scene James Buchanan.  Van Buren and Tyler had remained in private
life, and Fillmore, who made an aborted attempt to regain the Presidency as the
Know-Nothing nominee, was practicing law in Buffalo, New York, which at that
point in history, was prospering due to the Erie Canal traffic and trade.
      James Buchanan came into the Presidency upon the Panic of 1857 and the
Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.   He presided
over the four years, which due to his disposition to compromise and appease
rather than stand firm in the face of civil strife and polarization, made all but
inevitable the Civil War. He did not stand for re-election. Abraham Lincoln, who
had gained national stature during the Lincoln Douglas debates in 1858 and his
Cooper Union speech in New York City in 1860,  assumed the Presidency in
March of 1861, after several southern states beginning with the aforementioned
deceased John  Calhoun's South Carolina, seceded.   
      The book takes up how each of the predecessors who were alive when
Lincoln took office behaved during the conflict.  Van Buren and, to some extent,
Fillmore backed up Lincoln.  Tyler sided with the Confederacy and became the
only President who was to be renounced by the nation as a traitor. He died in
1862 and thus escaped treason charges.  Pierce's life was as tragic as his
Presidency. He and his wife had lost a son in a railroad accident as they traveled
to his inauguration in 1853.  Pierce lost his wife in 1864. He was critical of
Lincoln's actions and policies to such a degree that he was reviled in his own state
of New Hampshire.  He died from alcoholism is 1869,   Buchanan remained
pretty much in seclusion during his post Presidency, commenting only occasionally
on the state of the union during his failed Presidency.
      This book is not essential to understanding the Civil War. James McPherson's
masterpiece " Battle Cry for Freedom" along with Jay Winik's opus  "April 1865-  
The Month That Saved America" are must and should reads in order to
understand the Who, What, and Why of the U.S. Civil War.   What this work
does offer is a perspective on men who, on the national scene as Presidents,  with
their behavior, influence, and actions, set the stage for the  American Nation
before and during the conflict.  With that in mind, this reviewer heartily
recommends " The Presidents' War".

Mike McAdoo, Past President SFCWRT.
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