1841-1861 (John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan)
The Dilemma: Should the Parent Use Force to Solve a Moral Issue, viz., slavery, and Keep the Family Together? I.e., now that we separated from our parent (England) can we prohibit the states from separating from the federal government?
1841–1845 John Tyler
Tyler's assumption of complete presidential powers "set a hugely important precedent", according to a biographical sketch by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. Tyler's successful insistence that he was president, and not a caretaker or acting president, was a model for the succession of seven other presidents over the 19th and 20th centuries. The propriety of Tyler's action in assuming both the title of the presidency and its full powers was legally affirmed in 1967, when it was codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Some scholars in recent years have praised Tyler's foreign policy. Monroe credits him with "achievements like the Webster–Ashburton treaty which heralded the prospect of improved relations with Great Britain, and the annexation of Texas, which added millions of acres to the national domain". Crapol argued that Tyler "was a stronger and more effective president than generally remembered", while Seager wrote, "I find him to be a courageous, principled man, a fair and honest fighter for his beliefs. He was a president without a party." Author Ivan Eland, in an update of his 2008 book Recarving Rushmore, rated all 44 US presidents by the criteria of peace, prosperity, and liberty; with the finished ratings, John Tyler was ranked the best president of all time. Louis Kleber, in his article in History Today, pointed out that Tyler brought integrity to the White House at a time when many in politics lacked it, and refused to compromise his principles to avoid the anger of his opponents. Crapol argues that Tyler's allegiance to the Confederacy overshadows much of the good he did as president: "John Tyler's historical reputation has yet to fully recover from that tragic decision to betray his loyalty and commitment to what he had once defined as 'the first great American interest'—the preservation of the Union."
1845–1849 James Polk
James Polk (1795-1849) served as the 11th U.S. president from 1845 to 1849. During his tenure, America’s territory grew by more than one-third and extended across the continent for the first time. Before his presidency, Polk served in the Tennessee legislature and the U.S. Congress; in 1839 he became governor of Tennessee. A Democrat who was relatively unknown outside of political circles, Polk won the 1844 presidential election as the dark horse candidate. As president, he reduced tariffs, reformed the national banking system and settled a boundary dispute with the British that secured the Oregon Territory for the United States. Polk also led the nation into the Mexican-American War (1846-48), in which the United States acquired California and much of the present-day Southwest. Polk kept his campaign promise to be a one-term president and did not seek reelection. Soon after leaving the White House, he died at age 53.
1849–1850 Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) served in the army for some four decades, commanding troops in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War (1832) and the second of the Seminole Wars (1835-1842). He became a full-fledged war hero through his service in the Mexican War, which broke out in 1846 after the U.S. annexation of Texas. Elected president in 1848, Taylor entered the White House at a time when the issue of slavery and its extension into the new western territories (including Texas) had caused a major rift between the North and South. Though a slaveholder, Taylor sought to hold the nation together–a goal he was ready to accomplish by force if necessary–and he clashed with Congress over his desire to admit California to the Union as a free state. In early July 1850, Taylor suddenly fell ill and died; his successor, Millard Fillmore, would prove more sympathetic to the interests of southern slaveholders.
1850–1853 Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874) was the 13th president of the United States (1850–1853), and the last to be a member of the Whig Party while in the White House. A former U.S. Representative from New York, Fillmore was elected the nation's 12th vice president in 1848, and succeeded to the presidency in July 1850 upon the death of President Zachary Taylor. He was instrumental in getting the Compromise of 1850 passed, a bargain that led to a brief truce in the battle over slavery. He failed to win the Whig nomination for president in 1852; he gained the endorsement of the nativist Know Nothing Party four years later, and finished third in that election.
Fillmore was born into poverty in the Finger Lakes area of New York state—his parents were tenant farmers during his formative years. Though he had little formal schooling, he rose from poverty through diligent study and became a successful attorney. He became prominent in the Buffalo area as an attorney and politician, was elected to the New York Assembly in 1828, and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1832. Initially, he belonged to the Anti-Masonic Party, but became a Whig as the party formed in the mid-1830s; he was a rival for state party leadership with editor Thurlow Weed and Weed's protégé, William H. Seward. Through his career, Fillmore declared slavery an evil, but one beyond the powers of the federal government, whereas Seward was not only openly hostile to slavery, he argued that the federal government had a role to play in ending it. Fillmore was an unsuccessful candidate for Speaker of the House when the Whigs took control of the chamber in 1841, but was made Ways and Means Committee chairman. Defeated in bids for the Whig nomination for vice president in 1844, and for New York governor the same year, Fillmore was elected Comptroller of New York in 1847, the first to hold that post by direct election.
As vice president, Fillmore was largely ignored by Taylor, even in the dispensing of patronage in New York, on which Taylor consulted Weed and Seward. In his capacity as President of the Senate however, he presided over angry debates in the Senate as Congress decided whether to allow slavery in the Mexican Cession. Fillmore supported Henry Clay's Omnibus Bill (the basis of the 1850 Compromise) though Taylor did not. Upon becoming president in July 1850, Fillmore dismissed Taylor's cabinet and carried out his own policy priorities. He began by exerting pressure on Congress to pass the Compromise, highlighting how it gave legislative victories to both North and South – the five-bill package was approved and then enacted into law that September. The Fugitive Slave Act, expediting the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership, was a controversial part of the Compromise, and Fillmore felt himself duty-bound to enforce it, though it damaged his popularity and also the Whig Party, which was torn North from South. In foreign policy, Fillmore supported U.S. Navy expeditions to open trade in Japan, opposed French designs on Hawaii, and was embarrassed by Narciso López's filibuster expeditions to Cuba. He sought election to a full term in 1852, but was passed over by the Whigs in favor of Winfield Scott.
As the Whig Party broke up after Fillmore's presidency, many in Fillmore's conservative wing joined the Know Nothings, forming the American Party. In his 1856 candidacy as that party's nominee, Fillmore had little to say about immigration, focusing instead on the preservation of the Union, and won only Maryland. In retirement, Fillmore was active in many civic endeavors—he helped in founding the University of Buffalo and served as its first chancellor. During the American Civil War, Fillmore denounced secession and agreed that the Union must be maintained by force if necessary, but was critical of the war policies of Abraham Lincoln. After peace was restored, he supported the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson. Though he is relatively obscure today, Fillmore has been praised by some, for his foreign policy, and criticized by others, for his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and his association with the Know Nothings. Debate continues on to this day concerning whether Fillmore escalated the civil war by signing the Compromise of 1850.
1853–1857 Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869) was the 14th president of the United States (1853–1857), a northern Democrat who saw the abolitionist movement as a fundamental threat to the unity of the nation. He alienated anti-slavery groups by championing and signing the Kansas–Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, yet he failed to stem conflict between North and South, setting the stage for Southern secession and the American Civil War.
Pierce was born in New Hampshire, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate until he resigned from the Senate in 1842. His private law practice in New Hampshire was a success, and he was appointed U.S. Attorney for his state in 1845. He took part in the Mexican–American War as a brigadier general in the Army. He was seen by Democrats as a compromise candidate uniting northern and southern interests and was nominated as the party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. He and running mate William R. King easily defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham in the 1852 presidential election.
As president, Pierce simultaneously attempted to enforce neutral standards for civil service while also satisfying the diverse elements of the Democratic Party with patronage, an effort which largely failed and turned many in his party against him. He was a Young America expansionist who signed the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico and led a failed attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain. He signed trade treaties with Britain and Japan, while his Cabinet reformed their departments and improved accountability, but these successes were overshadowed by political strife during his presidency. His popularity declined sharply in the Northern states after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, while many whites in the South continued to support him. Passage of the act led to violent conflict over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce's administration was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba, a document which was roundly criticized. He fully expected to be renominated by the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election, but was abandoned by his party and his bid failed. His reputation in the North suffered further during the American Civil War as he became a vocal critic of President Abraham Lincoln.
Pierce was popular and outgoing, but his family life was a grim affair, with his wife Jane suffering from illness and depression for much of her life. All of their children died young, their last son being gruesomely killed in a train accident while the family was traveling shortly before Pierce's inauguration. He was a heavy drinker for much of his life, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869.
1857–1861 James Buchanan
James Buchanan (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) was the 15th president of the United States (1857–1861), serving immediately prior to the American Civil War. A member of the Democratic Party, he was the 17th United States secretary of state and had served in the Senate and House of Representatives before becoming president.
Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, to parents of Ulster Scots descent. He became a prominent lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist. In 1820, Buchanan won election to the United States House of Representatives, eventually becoming aligned with Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. After serving as Jackson's Minister to Russia, Buchanan won election as a senator from Pennsylvania. In 1845, he accepted appointment as President James K. Polk's Secretary of State. A major contender for his party's presidential nomination throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Buchanan finally won his party's nomination in 1856, defeating incumbent President Pierce and Senator Stephen A. Douglas at the 1856 Democratic National Convention. Buchanan and his running mate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, defeated Republican John C. Frémont and Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore to win the 1856 election.
Shortly after his election, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a broad ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which he fully endorsed as president. He allied with the South in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution. In the process, he alienated both Republican abolitionists and Northern Democrats, most of whom supported the principle of popular sovereignty in determining a new state's slaveholding status. He was often called a "doughface", a Northerner with Southern sympathies, and he fought with Douglas, the leader of the popular sovereignty faction, for control of the Democratic Party. In the midst of the growing sectional crisis, the Panic of 1857 struck the nation. Buchanan indicated in his 1857 inaugural address that he would not seek a second term, and he kept his word and did not run for re-election in the 1860 presidential election. Buchanan supported the North during the Civil War and publicly defended himself against charges that he was responsible for the war. He died in 1868 at age 77, and was also the last president to be born in the eighteenth century. He is the only president to remain a lifelong bachelor.
Buchanan wished and aspired to be a president who would rank in history with George Washington, by using his tendencies toward neutrality and impartiality. Historians fault him, however, for his failure to address the issue of slavery and the secession of the southern states, bringing the nation to the brink of civil war.