Sunday, July 06, 2008

Updike on "Bad" Presidents

I don't often reread books. I have such a huge backlog of partially read and unread books that I feel I'm just getting further behind by going back to a book I've read before. However, my recently acquired interest in the life of Franklin Pierce has inspired me to reread John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration. The novel's protagonist, like Updike, writes about James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce beat out James Buchanan, among others, for the Democratic nomination for President in 1852 (on the 49th ballot). Buchanan was the Democratic candidate and went on to win the election when Pierce was not offered the nomination in 1856. Another interesting connection between Pierce and Buchanan is that Buchanan's long-time room mate, William Rufus deVane King, was elected Pierce's vice-President. He and his alleged homosexual relationship with Buchanan will be the subject of another post.

Updike, through his protagonist, Alfred L. Clayton, wrote the following about Buchanan and the other "bad" Presidents leading up to the Civil War:

The challenge is, for the historian, to love the unlovable. . .He (Buchanan) tried to keep peace. That whole decade of Presidents did, Fillmore and Pierce and Buchanan--try, I mean--and they succeeded, they did keep the South placated, and in the Union, which was important, since if war had come in 1850 instead of 1860, the outcome might have been very different; the South had all its assets in place--the military tradition, the great officers, the down-home patriotism, King Cotton--and the North still needed to grow. And precious little thanks they've got from history for it--the doughface Presidents.

The term doughface was applied to northerners sympathizing with the south. Pierce has been accused of being pro-slavery, which is probably unfair. He was a Jacksonian Democrat and strict constructionist who believed the Constitution allowed slavery, but stated he personally was opposed to it.

Perhaps, as Updike's character suggests, we should love the unlovable and thank Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan for delaying war until the North was in a position to win. Interestingly, it was Jefferson Davis, Pierce's Secretary of War, who did much to build up the U.S. military before secession, when he became president of the Confedrate States of America.

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