The presidencies of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan don't usually draw a lot of attention. These obscure presidents' out-of-office activities generate even fewer words.
But when they intertwine with the president generally deemed the greatest in American history, Abraham Lincoln, their White House and post-elected office years are worth a look. Chris DeRose does so masterfully in The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them.
The book couldn't be timelier, in the midst of Civil War 150th anniversary commemorations. These occasions usually mark battlefield carnage, or political developments, like Lincoln's Jan. 1, 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
DeRose's The Presidents' War takes a different approach. The reader "experiences America's gravest crisis through the eyes of the five former presidents who lived it," as the book notes. DeRose provides rich detail on how each former president, in his own way, "challenged, advised, supported and opposed Abraham Lincoln while he struggled to preserve the Union and destroy slavery."
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, five former presidents were alive - an unusually large number repeated only a couple of times in American history. During their single terms - or less for Tyler and Fillmore - " what to do about slavery in the young, rapidly growing nation was a central issue.
After Abraham Lincoln assumed office in March 1861, each tried to be helpful as they saw fit. Though history has treated some more kindly than others.
John Tyler comes off the worst for his post-White House actions. Vice President John Tyler had assumed office in April 1841 upon the death of President William Henry Harrison, after a month in the White House. Tyler's most lasting achievement was setting the precedent that the vice president gains all presidential powers upon taking the top job - an issue of some constitutional ambiguity at the time.
Though Tyler had run on the Whig ticket in 1840, he never fit in with the party, which favored a more activist role for the federal government. He was essentially a political loner during his near full-term in the presidency, and couldn't win nomination from any party. "He would doggedly pursue the annexation of the Republican of Texas, leaving a legacy of challenge and opportunity for his successors," DeRose writes.
By the time of the Civil War Tyler had been out of the White House for 16 years. In the immediate run-up to the war, DeRose writes, "Tyler engaged in shuttle diplomacy between President Buchanan and the new Confederate government, chaired the failed Peace Convention of 1861, then joined the Virginia Secession Convention and served in the Confederate Congress, where he urged a Confederate takeover of Washington."
Tyler died as a member-elect of the Confederate Congress. The other former president to die during the Civil War was Tyler's immediate predecessor, Martin Van Buren.
"Founder of the first statewide political machine and the national Democratic Party, this son of a tavern keeper ascended to the nation's highest office before the first national economic crisis cost him re-election," DeRose writes.
Van Buren aimed for various political comeback attempts, none successful. But he was active politically up until his July 1862 death. "Van Buren schemed to deny Lincoln the presidency, supported him in his efforts after Fort Sumter, and thwarted Franklin Pierce's attempt at a meeting of the ex-presidents to undermine the president."
Perhaps now the most obscure president, "Millard Fillmore, desperately poor and poorly education, committed himself to overcoming his circumstances." Fillmore rose to become a congressman (twice), comptroller of New York, vice president, and president of the United States after the 1850 death of Zachary Taylor.
Fillmore has received a lot of condemnation from historians for signing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which widened the "peculiar institution" into the North. And his 1856 presidential candidacy on the anti-immigrant Know Nothing ticket hasn't enhanced his image.
But in DeRose's telling Fillmore comes off as one of the more valiant ex-presidents during the Civil War - though far from perfect. "Fillmore hosted Lincoln and Mary Todd on their way to Washington, supported the way effort, raised a national guard unit, offered advice to keep Britain at bay, but turned on Lincoln over emancipation."
James Buchanan is rightfully regarded as the nation's worst president. While Buchanan did the most damage by his pre-Civil War actions - or more precisely inaction - it's fair to say that Franklin Pierce had the worst intentions.
The New Hampshire politician was a slavery enthusiast. As president he sided with pro-slavery forces in divided Kansas, greatly ratcheting up the likelihood of violence nationally.
That was a disappointing conclusion to a stunningly fast political rise. "Franklin Pierce's career seemed limitless when his wife convinced him to leave the public stage," DeRose writes. "After service as a general in Mexico, Pierce returned to his quiet retirement. In 1852, a divided Democratic Party chose him as its nominee, sending him to the presidency," DeRose writes.
But Pierce's actions during the Civil War, when he was long gone from the White House, are rather dishonorable. He was a defeatist about the Union's chances of prevailing. Pierce's public live reached its nadir on July 4, 1863, just as news of Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were beginning to role in. Pierce delivered essentially an anti-Gettysburg address, arguing not that valiant Union soldiers shouldn't die in vain, as Lincoln said four months later, but that the anti-slavery war cause was futile.
As DeRose notes, "Franklin Pierce, talked about as a Democratic candidate in 1860 and '64, was openly supportive of the South and outspoken against the president, especially on civil liberties. After a battle with the administration over charges of treason, Pierce secret correspondence with Jefferson Davis was revealed."
Like Millard Fillmore, former President James Buchanan comes off better out of office than in. DeRose charitably sums up his administration this way: "James Buchanan, perhaps the most experienced man to serve as president, surrounded himself with a similarly credentialed cabinet. When faced with an unprecedented crisis, Buchanan found himself surrounded by secessionists and beset by others who wanted him to take a more aggressive approach."
Buchanan was more than happy to relinquish the White House to Lincoln. "James Buchanan, who had left office as seven states had broken away from the Union, frantically tried to vindicate his administration, in party by supporting the war and arguing that Lincoln had simply followed his policies."
Though that's nowhere near true. And such arguments have done virtually nothing to convince historians otherwise.
Worth The Read
The Presidents' War is DeRose's third book. He's also author of 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.
In his day jobs, DeRose is an attorney, professor of constitutional law and political consultant. Hopefully his latest book, The Presidents' War, will zoom to the top of summer reading lists.
Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark is author, with Chuck McCutcheon, of Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Slang, Jargon and Bluster of American Political Speech, to be released on Sept. 2, 2014. He is also author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.