Historical trends don’t always point to the best elected leaders

Published 10:42 am Friday, November 11, 2022

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An article came out this week from conservative writer George Will in the Washington Post that called for President Joe Biden and V.P. Kamala Harris not to run in the next presidential election. Will, who has opposed Trump from the beginning, basically said that the Republicans might make the mistake of running a man who has proven to be unqualified for the highest office and the Democrats need to protect the nation and not follow suit. Will, who voted for Biden in 2020, believes Biden is too old as seen in recent gaffs. It seems odd to not nominate a sitting president and Americans have become used to most of our presidents serving a full eight years. Only once in the 20th or 21st centuries has a party not nominated a sitting president and over the past 42 years only two presidents have served only one term. Yet there was a time in our history when this was quite common. A time when the nation experienced a string of subpar presidents and went for 24 years without having a two-term president or even nominating a sitting president.
Looking back at presidents, you can see times when parties had long runs in power. Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans basically held power from 1800 to 1828, a 28-year run. The Republicans then held the White House, with only two interruptions from 1860 to 1932, a 72-year run. Democrats came back with their own run and only one interruption from 1932 to 1968, a 36-year run. It gets harder to tell after that. There could be a mini-run of Republicans from 1968 to 2008, a 40-year run with two interruptions, or maybe Clinton started a Democratic run in 1992 till today, a 30-year run with two interruptions. The other possibility is that we are mimicking the one time we skipped when there were no runs. The parties went back and forth. The time between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, 1836 to 1860, when only one sitting president was renominated and there were no two-term presidents.
This time period started off with the one president that was renominated. Martin Van Buren won as a Democratic in 1836 but his presidency fell into shambles the following year with the Panic of 1837, one of the largest depressions in American history. The same holds true in 1837 as it does today. Americans vote first with their wallets. Van Buren did get the Democratic nod in 1840, but Americans blamed him for their economic woes and voted in the Whig, William Henry Harrison, good old Tippecanoe and his VP Tyler too. Speaking of woes, Harrison gave a long-winded inaugural speech in the cold, got sick and died a month later. It was no longer “Tyler too,” but now Tyler alone. He really was alone. He had been a Democrat his entire life but had switched to the Whigs to run on and balance the ticket. He was never supposed to be president and was shunned by both parties. When his term ended, he threw a party and announced to the crowd, “They cannot say now that I am a president without a party.” Clearly the Whigs had no interest in him running for a second term.
In 1844 both parties ran new candidates. The Whigs ran their founder and champion Henry Clay, while the Democrats ran an up-and-comer who most reminded them of Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk. Being from Tennessee, Polk even borrowed Jackson’s nickname and was known as “Young Hickory.” Polk was responsible for arguably the most controversial war in American history, the Mexican War, one that divided the nation along section lines. His presidency was so stressful that he decided to not run again for health reason. It was a good thing, too, or else he would have been the second president to die in office as he did pass about a year after he left the White House.
In 1848 both parties ran completely new candidates once again. Whigs went with their favorite tactic of running a war hero, and after the Mexican War there was none bigger than Zachary Taylor. Democrats, trying to continue to keep the ghost of Jackson alive, ran his Secretary of War, Lewis Cass. Even Jackson’s spirt could not help Cass, who lost to the very charismatic and popular Taylor. However, the Whigs retained their bad luck when, as with their last president, Taylor died, leaving the Whigs with the not as charismatic or popular Millard Filmore.
Not impressed with the Filmore presidency (no, I am not making these names up, they really were all presidents), the Whigs continued their trend and nominated the second most famous general of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott in 1852. The Democrats also ran a new name with Franklin Pierce, who won the day. Pierce got caught up in the Bleeding Kansas debacle and might as well have been radioactive in the 1856 election, the way the Democratic Party threw him under the bus. The party picked the least controversial candidate they could find, and it turned out to be possibly the worst American president, James Buchanan. As there was no Whig party to speak of, two other parties ran candidates. The Know Nothings, trying to get Whig votes, dug up and ran the corps of Filmore, while the brand-new Republican party ran John C. Freemont. The Republicans had enough Whigs in the party to nominate a military hero. No surprise Buchanan won, being from really the only major party in the race although he would go on to do nothing but watch the nation crumble into Civil War.
Then, of course, there is the 1860 election, where again neither major party ran the same candidate. Democrats ran Stephen Douglas, while the Republicans took a shot at a newcomer and nominated Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln ended the run of new candidates when in 1864 he ran and won a second term. It’s hard to imagine the turnover in the presidents as it was between 1836 and 1860, yet we can understand the back-and-forth. We have seen the presidency switch parties after each president since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
What we can learn from this is that, if the pattern holds and if Biden decides not to run, the Republicans will take over. We can also see this as a warning. The years between 1836 and 1860 are some of the most turbulent years in our history. It was during those years that things were becoming so divisive that it led to Civil War. I can’t say whether it was poor leadership that led to war or that even the best of our presidents could not have held us together during those years. However, I am leaning on the side of poor leadership. That means it’s up to us now to choose leaders who can properly steer our ship of state and honestly try to unite us instead of playing politics. I am not saying that this is easy. Clearly, the last two presidents have failed, and I have no idea what candidate can truly bridge the divide. All I know is I hope we can find one soon and not suffer the same fate as they did the last time we saw this trend.
(Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.)

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