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Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Presidential Misadventure and Triumph

Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Presidential Misadventure and Triumph

by Jim Cullen
Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Presidential Misadventure and Triumph

Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Presidential Misadventure and Triumph

by Jim Cullen

Paperback(First Edition)

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In this clever portrait of the American presidency, Jim Cullen takes ten presidents down from their pedestals by examining key missteps in their careers—and how they transcended them. Examples include Abraham Lincoln smearing a preacher and rediscovering his religious vision in emancipating slaves; Lyndon Johnson's electoral fraud in his 1948 Senate race and his role in the signing of the Voting Rights Act; and Ronald Reagan's subversion of the Constitution in the Iran-Contra affair and affirmation of world peace in helping bring about the end of the Cold War. Targeting Republicans and Democrats alike, Cullen's insights are surprisingly timely and hugely entertaining.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230605787
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/24/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jim Cullen is the author of "Born in the USA" (Literary Guild Alternate), "The American Dream," and other books. He has taught at Harvard, Brown, and Sarah Lawrence College, and currently teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, where he also serves on the Board of Trustees. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Imperfect Presidents

Tales of Misadventure and Triumph

By Jim Cullen

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Jim Cullen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61074-3



In which we see a hypocritical ideologue apprehend the value of pragmatism

Sometime during the month of January 1797, Thomas Jefferson made a fateful decision that would betray a friendship and destabilize a nation. Elected Vice President of the United States the previous November, he secretly resolved to decline an invitation to collaborate closely in the new government of President John Adams. Instead, he would keep his distance and quietly aid the opposition. The Adams administration would in effect be doomed before it got underway. Even worse, Jefferson's decision would mean that the nation's first foreign policy crisis would spill over into domestic politics, rocking the country to its foundations.

The chief reason for Jefferson's decision to betray his friend was ideological. Adams, part of the so-called Federalist faction in the new political regime, favored a stronger central government and a foreign policy aligned with England. Jefferson, who belonged to the so-called Democratic-Republican faction, favored stronger state governments and a foreign policy aligned with France. Amid the tumult of the French Revolution, which careened between anarchy and authoritarianism, U.S.-French relations, so crucial to the success of the American Revolution, had deteriorated to the point where the two nations were at virtual war. President-elect Adams thought he could heal the breach, at home and abroad, by sending Jefferson—who had once been U.S. ambassador to France—to negotiate with the Revolutionary government. Even if Jefferson himself could not go, perhaps one of his allies, like Congressman James Madison, could. Adams would no doubt be excoriated by his Anglophile allies for such a move, but it was a risk he was willing to take—a bold act of solidarity in a fragile country that could ill afford internal squabbling.

Jefferson's first instinct was to accept the offer, discreetly extended through mutual friends. Jefferson had known Adams for almost a quarter century; they had met in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress in 1775, collaborated on the Declaration of Independence the following year, and served together as diplomats in Europe during and after the American Revolution. In the years that followed they had drifted apart politically, yet remained friendly amid increasingly obvious philosophical differences and their respective unhappiness with their roles in the Washington administration—Adams as vice president and Jefferson as secretary of state. (Jefferson, disgusted with Washington's bias toward Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, left the nation's capitol in Philadelphia for his Virginia estate, Monticello, after the first term.) When Washington stepped down after his second term, Adams and Jefferson were widely considered the leading candidates from their respective factions to run for president. Adams won and became president, and as per the recently ratified Constitution, Jefferson, who came in second, became vice president.

Not that Jefferson himself minded the outcome. In December 1796, Madison wrote Jefferson that since Adams was the likely winner, "you must prepare yourself therefore to be summoned to the place Mr. Adams now fills." Jefferson wrote back on New Year's Day of 1797 to say that was just fine with him: "I am his junior in life [Jefferson was nine years younger than Adams], was his junior in Congress, his junior in the diplomatic line, his junior lately in our civil government." Besides, as he had noted in a December 27 letter to his South Carolinian friend Edward Rutledge, "this is certainly not the time to covet the helm." Given the difficulty any man would face in filling Washington's shoes, and the severity of the nation's foreign policy challenges, Jefferson was shrewd as well as gracious.

The very next day, Jefferson went a step further, writing a warm letter to Adams himself, expressing satisfaction with the pending outcome. "No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself," he told his longtime collaborator. Indeed, he expressed relief. "The share indeed which I may have had in the late vote, I shall still value highly, as an evidence of the share I have in the esteem of my fellow citizens.... [But] I have no desire to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office." Jefferson went on to express the hope that Adams would be able to steer the nation away from a looming war with France. "If you are, the glory will be all your own; and that your administration may be filled with glory and happiness to yourself and advantage to us is the sincere wish of one who tho', in the course of our voyage thro' life, various little incidents have happened or been contrived to separate us, retains still for you the solid esteem of the moments when we were working for our independence, and sentiments of respect and affectionate attachment."

Apparently, however, Jefferson had doubts about whether Adams should see the letter. We know this because rather than dispatching it directly, he sent it to his protégé, Congressman Madison, seeking his opinion. Madison was not ambivalent at all: He considered the letter a big mistake. He replied to Jefferson with a detailed list of reasons why Adams should never see it, the most important of which he saved for last: "Considering the probability that Mr. A's course of administration may force opposition to it from the Republican quarter, & the general uncertainty which our affairs may take, there may be real embarrassments from giving written possession to him." Politics, Madison told Jefferson, comes before friendship.

Jefferson accepted this advice, reluctantly. "Mr. A. and myself were cordial friends from the beginning of the revolution," he explained in his reply of January 30. "The deviation from that line of policy on which we had been united has not made me less sensible of the rectitude of his heart: and I wished him to know this." Still, he would harden his heart and tow the party line: Adams may want his help, even invite his participation, but "both duty and inclination will shut that door to me." A month that began with Jefferson charting a course toward Adams ended with a resolution to head in the opposite direction.

For his part, Adams—at times a vain and naïve man, though always an honest one—misunderstood the realities of American government in 1797, leading him to make some serious mistakes. His decision, for example, to emphasize continuity with the Washington administration by keeping on Washington's cabinet ignored the fact that many of these men were actually minions of Hamilton, who considered Adams an idiot (something Adams didn't fully understand, which probably only enhanced Hamilton's contempt). Adams was also slow to realize that Jefferson had cast his lot with the opposition, though this was clear to him by the time he officially took office. Jefferson never announced his position—he hated personal confrontation and would rather dissemble than face acrimony—but his reserve was a statement in its own right. After attending a dinner with the departing Washington on March 6, 1797, the two men would not exchange a meaningful word for the next fifteen years.

Jefferson's shabby treatment of Adams was more than a personal failing: In a very real sense, it was a national tragedy. The American republic was never as fragile as it was during the Adams years, when the so-called Quasi War with France severely divided the nation, with both the Federalist and Democratic-Republican factions acting in deeply irresponsible ways. On one side, supporters of the war rounded up and imprisoned those who expressed dissent as part of the Alien and Sedition Acts—a set of bills Adams signed against his better instincts and that permanently marred his reputation. On the other, critics of the administration, among them majorities in the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, with help from Madison and Jefferson respectively, drew up resolutions that states could simply ignore federal laws they did not like, raising the dangerous specter of secession. Amid wartime preparations Adams hoped would be headed by former president Washington, who instead delegated the task to the power-hungry Hamilton—a truly frightening prospect—the president ultimately steered the nation on a path to peace by ignoring earlier snubs by the French government and trying again with a more receptive set of French diplomats. But the job might have been a lot easier, and the partisan divisions that rocked the nation to its foundations would have been a lot less severe, had Jefferson helped Adams navigate the shoals.

But that was the thing about Jefferson: He had a restless mind that could stray remarkably, even alarmingly, far from pragmatic considerations. No less a figure than Madison observed in 1832 that "allowances ought to be made for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." (Of course, in this particular case, Jefferson had been following Madisonian counsel.) The most obvious example of Jefferson's tendency to round square truths, now invoked endlessly, is the fact that the man who wrote "all men are created equal" was, to his dying day, a slaveholder. At least those five words had a stirring idealism about them. Other notions were a good deal more strange, even repellent, like his desire to reduce happiness to a mathematical equation, or his suggestion, after much calculation of average life spans, that no contracts should be binding after twenty years. The complexities of lived experience were elusive, if not repugnant, to him. Even Jefferson's attempt to rewrite the New Testament by making the words of Jesus a set of ethical precepts has an aridity that suggests that his celebrated invocations of religious tolerance were little more than evidence of his detachment, even indifference, toward the complexities of spiritual life.

When he had his own turn in the presidency, Jefferson hewed as closely as he could to his theory of limited government. But, he would realize with some regret, this could be difficult. Nowhere was this more obvious than in dealing with the prospect of the greatest real estate transaction of all time. Here, as elsewhere, immediate opportunity clashed with abstract philosophy. It is a measure of the depth of Jefferson's commitments that it was unclear to him which he should choose.

Jefferson's accession to the presidency came in the notorious election of 1800, an election in which he challenged, and defeated, an Adams hobbled by the Alien and Sedition Acts and divisions among the Federalists. But Jefferson almost lost what he sought because of the deal he cut with Aaron Burr. The bargain was that Burr would deliver New York's electoral votes to Jefferson, and Jefferson would deliver the vice-presidency to Burr. However, this arrangement took an unexpected turn when he and Burr finished tied in the Electoral College, precipitating a fierce intrafactional struggle. Ironically, the conniving Alexander Hamilton, who detested both men, held the balance of power and directed his supporters to back a Jefferson he detested less. (Burr would kill Hamilton in a duel over an obscure slander three years later.)

The election of 1800 was a major turning point in American history. Though not immediately obvious at the time, it marked the beginning of the end of the Federalists, whose avowedly elitist approach to politics was ill-suited to a country where barriers to voting were falling and electoral participation was rising. Jefferson established a changed tone by the relative modesty with which he was inaugurated, projecting an image of republican simplicity—one, it should be said, markedly at odds with the facts of his life—that contributed to his mythic stature as the champion of democracy. At the same time, he lived up to his reputation for graciousness in his famed inaugural address, in which the magnanimous victor proclaimed "that we are all republicans, we are all federalists.... Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

Jefferson's first term in office was a smashing success. He pursued and realized Republican goals of cutting taxes, balancing the federal budget, slimming down the military, and (especially) undoing the ravages of the Alien and Sedition Acts by dropping cases and letting the laws lapse. To a great extent, he was lucky—his accession to the presidency coincided with a lull in the raging conflict between Britain and France, which meant that the United States was, for the moment at least, not storm-tossed between them. This allowed him to concentrate on domestic policy. It also presented him with a fabulous opportunity.

When Jefferson ascended to the presidency in 1801, the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and its tributaries, especially the Ohio, were increasingly viewed as indispensable avenues of national growth. The main thrust of American settlement was west of the Allegheny Mountains into the new states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But expansionists, ranging from landless farmers to the president himself, looked to the southwest in particular with growing interest. American leaders hoped to persuade Spain, which controlled most of the continent, thanks to the French cession of Louisiana, to part not only with New Orleans, but the Floridas (whose east and west sections formed the northern rim of the Caribbean, which Spain had long held as a buffer zone for its valuable, and far more highly prized, holdings in Central America, South America, and the islands off the Gulf of Mexico).

What Jefferson didn't anticipate was the return of a former player on the scene: France. By the start of his administration, that revolution-wracked nation had come full circle and was now governed by Napoleon Bonaparte, an autocrat in all but name (he would be crowned Emperor in 1804). The very interval of peace between France and Britain that had allowed Jefferson to focus on domestic policy also gave Napoleon the opportunity to survey the global situation, and this led him to conclude that France should reestablish the North American empire it lost to England in the Seven Years War of 1754-63 (a war that, in driving France from the continent, made it safe for British colonies to revolt against the mother country). The point of reentry, Napoleon resolved, would be Santo Domingo, a French possession on the island of Hispaniola (today known as the nation of Haiti, which shares the island with the Dominican Republic).

This was a decision replete with ironies. For one thing, it forced Jefferson to wrestle with his feelings about France, where he had lived as U.S. ambassador from 1784 to 1789. For almost three decades, he looked to that nation as a source of hope and help for his own nation. "A more benevolent people, I have never known," he wrote at the end of his life, "nor greater warmth & devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city." Jefferson considered France the preeminent nation on the face of the earth, and had trouble accepting the fact that it was now a competitor on the North American continent.

The complications didn't stop there. Jefferson considered French revolutionary ideals to be a beacon to the world, maintaining such beliefs in the face of growing skepticism on the part of his own countrymen—and geopolitical situations that exposed the selfishness and contradictions inherent in both French and American notions of freedom. In 1791, explicitly invoking the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality, a slave revolt eventually headed by the former domestic servant Toussaint L'Ouverture succeeded in overthrowing colonial rule in Haiti. A French general persuaded him to accept rule by the revolutionary republic, but Toussaint never surrendered his authority to Paris, effectively governing the country. The Adams administration, believing the 1778 American treaty with France non-transferable after the fall of Louis XVI, actively aided Touissant, much to the chagrin of Southerners like Jefferson, who were appalled by the precedent a successful slave revolt might portend for the United States.

So when the Napoleonic government asked the new Jefferson administration for its help in subjugating the would-be colony, Jefferson eagerly agreed, unaware that he would be serving larger French colonial ambitions. "Nothing would be easier than to supply everything for your army and navy, and to starve out Toussaint," he told the secretary to the French delegation in Washington. Yet even as the American and French governments were having these discussions—even as the Treaty of Morte-fontaine, which officially ended the Quasi War between the United States and France, was going through its final procedural steps before its final ratification in 1801—Napoleon was following through on the provisions of the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), a secret Franco-Spanish pact by which the Louisiana territory would be returned to France. Unwittingly, then, Jefferson would be helping Napoleon use Santo Domingo as a springboard to occupy the very territory on which he was pinning his own hopes. It was precisely the kind of Machiavellian move that the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, loved to execute, particularly when it came to Americans. For Talleyrand, Louisiana was to become a "wall of brass" that would stop American western expansion cold.

As was so often the case, it was Madison, now serving as secretary of state, who reconnected Jeffersonian dreams with factual realities. Madison learned from the U.S. ambassador to England, Rufus King, of the rumored French takeover of Louisiana, and brought it to Jefferson's attention. The two agreed to send an envoy, Robert Livingston of New York, to find out what was going on. Livingston arrived in Paris at the end of 1801 and spent the next year enduring Napoleonic evasion and the thinly veiled insults of Talleyrand as he pumped his sources for information on who controlled what, and if, when, or whether territory was actually going to change hands.


Excerpted from Imperfect Presidents by Jim Cullen. Copyright © 2007 Jim Cullen. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The President We Want * General Washington Fumbles His Glasses * Former President Adams Can't Stop Gagging * Former Congressman Lincoln Stubs His Toe * "Gentleman Boss" Arthur Bites the Hand that Feeds Him * Young Dude Roosevelt Makes a Grand Entrance * Less-Than-Frank Roosevelt Takes a Stand—on Crutches * "Landslide Lyndon" Destroys His Party * Jerry Ford Pardons a Crook * "Slick Willie" Gives Newt the Slip * President Bush Fumbles and Invasion * Conclusion: The President We Need

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