(See also Presidents I: Washington-Buchanan and Presidents III: Harding-Obama)

Now, where was I?

Abraham Lincoln

No, wait. First:

Aside: What Caused the Civil War?

You’d think by now we’d have at least agreed the causes of 150-year-old war, but I still see people arguing it was about states’ rights, not slavery, so I figured I’d weigh in. I think the pertinent question here is, “a state’s right to what?” To secede from the country? I don’t think the southern states seceded just to prove they could. To ignore federal laws? It’s not like we had a civil war every time a state disagreed with a new law, and the southern states were pretty into federal law when it suited them (see: Fugitive Slave Act, Dredd Scott Decision).

No – the Civil War started in 1861, because the 1860 elections gave power to a solidly anti-slavery party, and the South didn’t want its slaves freed. If you’re interested, check out these Declarations of the Causes of the Seceding States. They’re like, 10% legal arguments, and 90% slavery.

Now, back to presidents.

Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln was a tall, bearded, sort of weird looking, incredibly well-read and mostly-self taught lawyer who freed most of the slaves, ended the civil war, freed the rest of the slaves, and then got killed in a theater.

He came to national prominence in his 1858 senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, during which the they held public debates that drew audiences of thousands, lasted for hours, and were printed in newspapers around the country. Lincoln lost that campaign, but wound up surprising everyone (including, probably, himself) by being nominated for president two years later, and then winning in a four-way election without carrying a single southern state. Then the southern states seceded.

I won’t spent too much time on the Civil War itself. Suffice to say it was long, and brutal, and cast a shadow over American politics for generations. By the time it ended, 700,000 Americans were dead, and so was slavery, and (a week later, thanks to an actor’s gun) so was Abraham Lincoln.

On a sort of related note, Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was nearby when his father was assassinated, and was also nearby when president James Garfield was assassinated, and again when president William McKinley was assassinated. After that, I gather he stopped standing near presidents.

Andrew Johnson


Andrew Johnson grew up dirt-poor, apprenticed as a tailor, and didn’t even learn to read until he was seventeen, but by the time he died he’d been a congressman, governor, senator, vice-president, and president. Those last two were for slightly unusual reasons – he was elected vice-president partially because he was the only southern senator who didn’t resign when his state seceded, and became president because some jerk killed Lincoln.

His term as president was basically one long fight with congress over what to do with the southern states, with Johnson pushing for reconciliation and the Republicans pushing back. And I kind of get where they were each coming from. Like, on the one hand, keeping the country together was the whole reason the US fought the Civil War, and the sooner reconciled, the better. On the other hand, stopping slavery was the whole other reason the US fought the Civil War, and now the southern states were replacing slavery with “black codes” and starting the Ku Klux Klan. In any case, the Radical Republicans mostly won, which is why we call it Radical Reconstruction.

Ulysses S. Grant


I’ve heard that Ulysses Grant was a great general and a terrible general and everything in between, but I haven’t done enough reading to weigh in on that. Either way, he won the Civil War, and a few years later he was president.

He continued Reconstruction in the south (by force, when necessary) and improved relations abroad, but was loosely associated with (though never implicated in) a bunch of dodgy financial scandals and left office in the wake of the Panic of 1873, aka The Depression That Might Have Been Great If Not For The Greater One In 1929.

He died of throat cancer, probably because he smoked twenty cigars a day.

Rutherford B. Hayes


Some of you reading might remember the US presidential election of 2000, or the related Supreme Court case, or “hanging chads.” The 1876 election was worse. Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote and the electoral college, and even agreed that he lost the election, but his party alleged fraud in four states and refused to concede. The whole thing went on for months, and ended up being decided in Hayes’ favor by a congressional committee in a party-line vote.

And it’s a shame that that’s what he’s remembered for, because he sounds like a totally decent guy. He promised to serve only one term, didn’t rock too many boats, and spent the rest of his life working on religious and charitable causes like educating former slaves.

James Garfield


I don’t have much to say about James Garfield. He came up from nothing, got elected president, and then got shot. The worst part is that it wasn’t the bullet that killed him, but infection from the doctors’ unsterilized tools. Be glad you’re living in the modern era – this poor guy took more than two months to die.

Chester A. Arthur


Chester Arthur is an interesting one. He was a total dandy, dressing well, eating well, and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. He was a well-known proponent of the so-called “spoils system,” where the winners of elections would thank their supporters with plush government jobs (and people would support candidates in return for plush government jobs).

But then he got into office and did a complete 180, enacting legislation that more or less abolished that whole system. Why the change? I don’t really know, but the most narratively-satisfying explanation I’ve seen points to the deadly kidney disease he was diagnosed with right around the time he ascended to the presidency. He was dying – what did he have to lose?

Grover Cleveland


The only thing anyone seems to remember about Grover Cleveland is that he served two nonconsecutive terms in office, which is important, I guess, but hardly the most interesting thing about him. He was a big, fat, serious, unyieldingly honest man – the sort of man who, as a sheriff in western New York, hanged men himself because he thought it more honest than paying a hangman. As president, he knew what he was for and what he was against and was famously obstinate about it all, vetoing more bills than all previous presidents combined. Oh, and he used the military to break up strikes.

Benjamin Harrison


Benjamin Harrison was so unfriendly that people called him the “human iceberg,” and from what I’ve read, he wasn’t a very good president. He approved a big unpopular tariff bill, built up the navy, and brought the Indian Wars to an end with the famous massacre at Wounded Knee.

His great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, his grandfather was a president (well, for like 30 days), and his father was a congressman who was involved posthumously in a grave-robbing scandal in which his was the grave that was robbed. See, medical schools needed bodies to teach with, but bodies were hard to get. If an unsavory fellow with muddy boots offered them a fresh one, well, who’s to know where it came from? Except in this case it came from the grave of a congressman, and they tracked his body down, and the whole thing was such a fiasco that it led to the passage of the Ohio Anatomy Law of 1881, which said schools could have any corpse no one wanted, but absolutely could not have corpses that people had buried in cemeteries.

Grover Cleveland (again)


See, this is why counting the presidents is hard.

William McKinley


The cleft-chinniest of all presidents, William McKinley presided over a period of corporate consolidations that folks today might find somewhat familiar. But the big thing to know about his presidency is that it’s the first time an American ship blew up somewhere and started a war. In this case, it was the USS Maine, in Cuba, and American newspapers were so excitedly pro-war that McKinley couldn’t really say no. Thus the Spanish-American War, which the US won so hard that it accidentally colonized the Philippines.

Theodore Roosevelt


I’m not sure if Teddy Roosevelt was the manliest president ever, but I’m sure he’d want to be. His resumé makes him sound like a fictional character, like Indiana Jones with a mustache or Brock Samson with glasses. He started life as a rich but sickly boy in New York City, travelled the world, explored the Amazon, and personally killed a large percentage of the animals in the New York and Smithsonian Museums of Natural History. He fought with ostentatious bravery in the Spanish-American War in a unit that was mostly college athletes and cowboys, became vice president, and when William McKinley was shot early in his second term, Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in US history.

He based his presidency on an economic policy he called the “Square Deal,” which mostly involved breaking up monopolies. He also started regulating the food and drug industries, established a bunch of national parks, started construction on the Panama Canal, and won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Oh, and here’s an art story that I love: John Singer Sargent, possibly the greatest painter in American history, was commissioned to do Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential portrait, so he and Roosevelt walked around the White House searching for a good location. They wandered around every room on the first floor, Roosevelt growing more and more impatient, and when they started up the staircase to the second floor, Roosevelt told him he didn’t think Sargent knew what he wanted. Sargent replied that he didn’t think Roosevelt knew what was involved in painting a portrait. Roosevelt turned around, but his hand on the railing and said “DON’T I!?” and Sargent told him to freeze just like that, that’s the pose. It became Roosevelt’s favorite portrait.

William Howard Taft


If you’ve heard anything about Taft, it’s probably the bathtub story: he was so fat that he got stuck in a White House bathtub and needed help to get out. And it’s true, but there’s more to him than that. He was a close associate of Teddy Roosevelt and became president mostly thanks to him, and continued a lot of his policies. Or, well, he sort of did. I mean, he did, but not enough for Roosevelt, who got more and more pissed off at him and ran against him on a third party ticket in the next election, which is probably why Woodrow Wilson won. After that, Taft taught law at Yale for a while until he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a decade or so later, which he liked a lot more than being president.

Oh, and he eventually solved his bathtub problem. He installed a larger one.

Woodrow Wilson


Woodrow Wilson, as far as I know, is the first US president to go to war in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” That’s common enough now that I see it used ironically more than sincerely, but before Wilson the justifications were usually more simple: land, or resources, or power. I wouldn’t say it’s not still about those – it usually is – but now people tend to justify them in larger ideas of moral world orders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Woodrow Wilson was a former president of Princeton University who introduced the income tax, defended trade unions, and kept the US out of the First World War, for a few years at least. He also laid the groundwork for the League of Nations, which was sort of like if the United Nations started a quarter century earlier and totally failed. I should mention that there’s been some big public arguments recently about how racist he was (very) and whether that makes him a bad guy (depends what decade you’re standing in).

When he was courting his second wife, the Washington Post ran an article that should have said “The president spent much of the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt” but someone forgot the “tain” in “entertaining.”

Right, that’s enough for now. Next week, the thrilling conclusion: Presidents III: Harding-Obama, and Some People Who Sound Like, But Have Never Been, Presidents. And the week after that, I’m thinking maybe some greek tragedies.