Over Lincoln's Shoulder

The five ex-presidents who badgered the man trying to save their country

When Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House in March 1861, he had five former occupants looking over his shoulder. No president ever had more. And what a motley crew they were.

If Lincoln’s Cabinet was a team of rivals, most or all of whom thought they could do a better job than their boss, they at least had the advantage of never having been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

The same could not be said for Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. All had the opportunity to address the irrepressible conflict that had threatened the Union for decades. None did so effectively.

But their failures were no bar to the barrage of mostly unsolicited advice the lesser lights would offer to Lincoln.

In “The Presidents’ War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them,” author, lawyer and campaign consultant Chris DeRose exposes this mishmash of kibitzers for what they were — men of little vision presuming to advise a prophet.

“Lincoln won election in 1860 over the opposition of five former presidents,” DeRose said in an interview. “Membership in the Republican Party made him a nonstarter for four of the five, but it was more than that. They saw him as a threat to the institution itself. The role of president, as they envisioned it and lived it, was to serve as conciliator in chief, granting concessions to the Southern interest when necessary. His firm position on free territories was a matter of grave concern, for what it meant for the institution, to say nothing of the union.”

DeRose takes his time, using the first third of the book to introduce us to the five antagonists, covering the highlights of each presidency. It is time and space well spent.

These men had some triumphs. Van Buren built a national party, Tyler annexed Texas, Fillmore steered the Compromise of 1850 to passage — successes that yielded mixed results and sometimes violent reactions.

But they were, for the most part, frittering around the edges of an impending national catastrophe, not because they couldn’t see it, but because they could. Rather than confront it, they chose to trim, or avert their gaze.

The story of the six presidents really begins when the sixth arrives in the capital to confront a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington.”

And it is here where DeRose’s well-seeded narrative bears fruit. For we now know these men, from their deeds and words — and when they challenge Lincoln’s policies, their narrow interests and lack of vision quickly become obvious.

They deride Lincoln as a sectional man, but he is the only one among them who seems to understand the nation they have all governed.

Hidebound by pieties of the past, none can fully see their way clear to the new birth of freedom Lincoln promises, not just for enslaved blacks, but for the entire United States and all of humanity.

“The former presidents were living in a world they did not recognize,” DeRose writes.

‘Fault or Folly’

Not a single former president gave Lincoln his unconditional support.

Of the five, only Tyler was traitorous, though Pierce came very close. All three still living in 1864 voted against Lincoln when he ran for re-election.

In the interregnum between the 1860 election and Lincoln’s first inaugural, Fillmore criticized the outgoing Buchanan for his weakness, and Lincoln and the Republicans for standing strong. But Fillmore would come around when the shooting started, as would the cautious Van Buren, after a bit more time.

“We have reached a crisis in the history of this country, when no man, however humble his rank or limited his influence, has a right to stand neutral,” Fillmore declared. “Civil war has been inaugurated, and we must meet it. Our government calls for aid, and we must give it. Our Constitution is in danger, and we must defend it. It is no time now to inquire by whose fault or folly this state of things has been produced.”

As well Fillmore might wish to avoid discussion of such “fault or folly,” since a considerable amount of it rested in his lap.

“Fillmore spends the war as a man without a party,” DeRose said. “No previous president is more supportive of Lincoln after Fort Sumter. But Fillmore was an artifact of an old America that was rapidly fading away. When Lincoln enlarged the objective of the war to include the destruction of slavery, he lost Fillmore, who believed in returning to the status quo antebellum. Nobody was more willing to fight to restore the Union; nobody was less willing to fight a war over slavery.”

Like Fillmore, Van Buren was critical of Buchanan but did not back Lincoln in 1860. He was reasonably supportive after the war began, but the least active. He fell ill in the autumn of 1861 and died in July 1862.

The clay-footed Buchanan was, predictably, the last to weigh in, but when he did he supported Lincoln in his own tepid way.

It was not enough for many, who questioned where Buchanan had been for the past four years as the country was coming apart.

When Buchanan appealed to soldiers from the South to honor their oaths rather than abandon their posts and join the Confederacy, an abolitionist newspaper asked, “Would it not have been far more apropos for JB to have discoursed upon the nature of a Presidential oath?”

Tyler, who presided over an abortive, early 1861 Peace Conference at the Willard Hotel, was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, but died in January 1862 before taking his seat — the only president whose life ended as an avowed enemy of the country he had led.

While Tyler could be understood, if not exonerated, because he was a Virginian, Pierce had no such excuse for his flirtations with treason, including a notorious correspondence with Jefferson Davis, who had been Pierce’s secretary of War.

“I will never justify, sustain or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless, unnecessary war,” Pierce said after Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to meet the emergency.

And he was, at least, true to his word. Pierce never did come to understand that his world had passed away. A young man to whom everything in life had come so easily, who had always been a success, had a decade earlier failed at the presidency. Now he had suffered a failure of moral courage, and posterity would damn him for it.

History at an Angle

DeRose has built a nice niche looking at oft-told tales from a distinctive point of view.

In “Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and the Election That Saved a Nation,” he examines the 1789 House race that pitted friends James Madison against James Monroe, the only instance in history when two future presidents faced each other for a House seat. Madison, a strong supporter of the new Constitution, prevailed over Monroe, who had fears about how much authority was shifting from the states to the federal government.

Informing “Founding Rivals” is the voice of a modern campaign consultant, applying his vocation to the avocation of history.

“What’s fascinating is that while technology has changed since 1789, campaigns really haven’t,” said DeRose, who has been a campaign operative for Rep. Sean P. Duffy, R-Wis., former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and other candidates. “Turn out your base, target potential crossover votes with a compelling message, build coalitions, highlight your opponent’s weaknesses. Madison and Monroe’s campaigns even had a modern [get-out-the-vote] operation. It’s truly remarkable.”

In “Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America’s Greatest President,” DeRose wrote a sort of prequel to Don Fehrenbacher’s classic “Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s,” with the story of Lincoln’s single term in Congress (1847-49) sandwiched by a brief look at his early political ambitions and what would follow.?He uses a similar approach in “The President’s War,” a more ambitious undertaking than the other two books. While the Civil War is familiar ground to most readers, the story of how the living former presidents met the challenge — or didn’t — is a fresh and fascinating take.

John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and the author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.” Connect with him on Twitter @JohnBick1960.