My Beloved Husband and I have a penchant for contests in which we quiz each other on trivia. We have exhausted the state capitals, made moderate headway on the country capitals, and I got my butt kicked by my BH on the international radio code (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.). We also enjoy space esoterica such as naming the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions or the naming the wives of the “New Nine” astronauts. A few months ago, we ate at a diner where the placemats featured pictures of all of the American Presidents, and we immediately seized on a new contest.
My history and political reading of the past year and a half gave me a distinct advantage, but both of us floundered between Andrew Jackson, whose winning slogan was, “John Quincy Adams can write, but I can fight!” and approximately Woodrow Wilson. It’s a vast wasteland in the middle with only Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as familiar faces. Even trying to regroup the Presidents by other characteristics such as the “cartoon” presidents: Millard (Mallard) Fillmore, (James) Garfield, and Grover (Cleveland) didn’t help much in reproducing the sequence. (As I was writing that passage, I called in my BH to consult, and when he tried for “President Deputy Dog,” I knew that he was not going to be a big help.) So why is this string of Presidents so unmemorable? The answer is found in the balance of power between the President and the Senate
When our modern government was formed and George Washington was unanimously named as the first President, the players all rather gingerly explored their roles. Laws originated largely from Congress, and predominantly from the House. The first six Presidents used their veto power sparingly and then only in cases in which they felt that the new law violated the young Constitution. George Washington however, submitting a slate of candidates for approval by the Senate for a variety of government positions, learned the hard way that the Senate did not see their role of “advise and consent” to mean automatic acceptance of Washington’s recommendations. One nomination was blocked by a senator who had a personal quarrel with the nominee, prompting Washington to appear before the Senate to question what the problem was. Much as they respected this man who had been elected unanimously, the Senate felt no obligation to explain their actions. Thus Washington learned to consult with the Senate before he submitted nominations, and he proceeded to conduct all of his subsequent business with Congress through written correspondence rather than by addressing the group on their own turf. Both practices remain in place today.
The 1820’s began what came to be known as the Golden Age of the Senate. It began following the term of Andrew Jackson, (President #7), who forcefully imposed his strong views about the primacy of the President upon Congress. Thus after his term Congress pushed back hard to re-establish their own power. The Senate in particular, flexed its authority by no longer deferring to the House to introduce legislation and began to originate its own bills.
As Alexis de Tocqueville described the Senate in 1835, “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” The great triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were but three of the senators whose fiery and passionate debates hammered out acts such as the Missouri Compromise of 1850, which for a time preserved the Union and delayed the Civil War for decades.
Because the Senate contained a considerable portion of the best political talent, and because of the tensions between North and South making it impossible for the best known candidates to be nominated, the Golden Age of the Senate from the 1820’s through the 1850’s accompanied great weakness in the Presidency. Men like Zachary Taylor or James Polk were political compromises who did their best to stay out of the legislature’s way and did not make a significant impression upon history. At least ten of the 62 senators who served in the 1849-1850 Congress had greater impact upon the country than did the Presidents of that era. They included Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, but also William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who later became part of President Lincoln’s team of rivals cabinet as Secretaries of state, treasury, and war respectively.
It was Abraham Lincoln who temporarily shifted more power to the Presidency and away from the Senate. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued entirely without consulting Congress, who were less than pleased at being left out of the loop. This power shift was transitory since Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, holds the dubious honor of the first President to be impeached by the House. On my visit to the National Archives last year, I saw the piece of paper with the hand-written resolution for impeachment; it was carried around for days by a representative who was looking for an opportunity to use it. Although Johnson narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate, he left the Presidency again greatly weakened.
Thus began a second sequence of Presidents whose names are barely memorable. Following Ulysses Grant, who was adept at winning a war, but had no idea how to run a country, were men such as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur. It was not until Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became President upon the assassination of William McKinley that Congress acquired another worthy opponent in the White House and the inexorable progression toward a strong President would begin.
Having learned this bit of history, I felt that my lack of knowledge of these Presidents was perfectly justified. Besides, although my English BH knows a greater than average amount about American Presidents, I still knew enough to beat him at the game.