Five previous presidents were alive during the Civil War. The were Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore. What were they doing during the Civil War? This will be the subject of todays blog.
Martin Van Buren was our eighth President and at the time of our Civil War he was the oldest surviving President. Van Buren had powerful anti-slavery views and after his term ended in 1841 he sought the Presidential chair in 1848 and was defeated. He strongly supported Abraham Lincoln but did not live to see Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation take effect. Van Buren died on July 24, 1862 at the age of 79. President Martin Van Buren does not usually receive high marks from historians but he have a quote that we need to remember with the upcoming election in 2008 and the current failures of President Bush. Van Buren said "All communities are apt to look to government for too much."
Unlike Martin Van Buran former President John Tyler was a native southerner. He also was a big-time supporter of states rights and many of his polices as President might have helped cause the Civil War. After his term ended in 1845 Tyler lived a relatively quiet life until the Civil War began. In 1861 he helped lead a compromise movement but his plans failed. He then turned to support his native Virginia and became a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. He even voted for Virginia to secede from the Union. However, week and feeble Tyler didn't serve the Confederacy for very long. The former President died at his post on January 18, 1862. Tyler is a forgotten President but he had many "firsts" as the nations executive that need to be mentioned here. He had more children (15) than any other U.S. President. He was the first President to have lose a veto to Congress. He was the great-grand uncle of future President Harry Truman. He was the first President to become President without being elected to the office. Finally he was a part of the most memorable Presidential election phrase in history, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too".
Our 13th President was Millard Fillmore who like Lincoln was a member of the Whig party. After his Presidency ended in 1853 Fillmore left the Whigs and became a member of Know Nothing Party. In 1856 his attempt at a Presidential election failed and Fillmore was sent into retirement. During the Civil War he opposed almost of President Lincoln's policies. Fillmore lived in Buffalo, New York during the war and was extremely active in civic affairs. In fact, Milliard Fillmore hospital (in Buffalo) was founded by Fillmore and is named in his honor. In his later years he became the president of the historical society in Buffalo and chancellor of the University of Buffalo. After Lincoln's death Fillmore supported Andrew Johnsons reconstruction policies. He passed away on March 8, 1874 and is buried in Buffalo. Like Tyler, Fillmore was one of many Presidents who is blamed for the coming of the Civil War. Like me he was a native of Buffalo and should be remembered as a strong Union supporter and a crafty lawyer. Perhaps he spoke for himself and the other Presidents before and after him who are forgotten by the general public when he said "It is a national disgrace that our Presidents, after having occupied the highest position in the country, should be cast adrift, and, perhaps, be compelled to keep a corner grocery for subsistence."
President Franklin Pierce was our 14th President and held the office during the most crucial time period before the onset of the Civil War. Pierce is generally ranked among the least-effective chief executives despite his good looks and charm. His secertary of war, Jefferson Davis was the the future and only President of the Confederacy. Despite being a native to New Hampshire, Pierce supported many pro-slavery legislations throughout his political life. He believed that the Constitution supported states rights issues and slavery itself. Like Fillmore he was deeply opposed to Lincoln and his administration. He was greatly disliked in the North for his displeasure with the Union cause. Calling the war a failure because he felt that it was a "butchery of white men" for the sake of "inflicting" freedom on the black race who didn't want it, Pierce was widely hated for his beliefs. His last public speech voiced his displeasure with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in those areas still controlled by the Confederacy. This speech was his greatest error because he gave it just after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg with Northern morale had reached an all-time high. Afterwards his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne never spoke to him again, his wife died one year later causing Pierce to live alone for the remainder of his life. After recovering from alcoholism he died October 8, 1869. President Grant called for a national day of mourning in honor of Franklin Pierce.
James Buchanan is remembered as our 15th President and as the man who failed to keep the Union together during his Presidency. Also, there are rumors that he might be the only known homosexual president but this issue is still clouded in mystery. After leaving office his parting words to Congress were to amend the Constitution on the subject of slavery before it caused a national conflict. During the war he supported Lincoln's policies and administration while living in retirement in Lancaster, PA. He even published a book defending his actions during his administration. A fierce Unionist who predicted that the Confederacy would fail Buchanan wrote the following to his son in 1861. The Confederate States have deliberately commenced the civil war, & God knows where it may end. They were repeatedly warned by my administration that an assault on Fort Sumter would be Civil War & they would be responsible for the consequences. Boy was he right. Buchanan died on June 1, 1868.