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.