Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was a leader of the resistance movement of her day, and she belongs in the pantheon of American greats. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. Then, at great personal risk to herself, she returned to the South many times in the years that followed to lead more of her people to freedom. Most “conductors” on the Underground Railroad brought back one or two fugitives at a time. Tubman led much larger groups, sometimes as many as a dozen at time. She brought back siblings and even her own elderly parents, who lived to ripe old ages themselves.

During the Civil War, Tubman served with the Union as a nurse, spy and military advisor. Her involvement was key in a number of campaigns, including one in South Carolina in which about 750 slaves were led to freedom from several prominent estates, in a single night.

After the Civil War she settled in Auburn, New York, where she provided food and shelter to those in need. She often spoke to groups and became an advocate for women’s suffrage. During her life she met and worked with Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and many others. William Seward, who was a governor of New York State, a United States Senator and Secretary of State under Lincoln, was a longtime supporter of Tubman. She lived until 1913 — the year that Rosa Parks was born!

Other notable facts about Harriet Tubman:

  • Born Araminta Ross (sometimes called “Minty”), she changed her name after her escape.
  • Tragically, two of her sisters were sold away to the Deep South, never to be heard from again.
  • She was deeply religious.
  • Married twice.
  • She fought with the federal government for decades to receive a military pension, which she finally received toward the end of her life.
  • She suffered from narcolepsy, possibly the result of being hit in the head with a large metal object in her youth by a slave owner.

Harriet Tubman book review

After realizing I have only been reading books about old and dead rich white men this year, I picked up “Harriett Tubman: The Road to Freedom,” by Catherine Clinton, to help me understand a bit more about how the actions of our government affected people of color during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a shameful legacy. The Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, was particularly cruel.

I found Clinton’s book to be well written and — more important — well researched. It put a pivotal American’s life into context with the history of the times. This was a challenge for the author, as Tubman did not read or write, she had no letters, and there are few written records of the Underground Railroad. In my view, the author did a commendable job assembling the information available into a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative, while at the same time dispelling many myths.

Plans were underway to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, but our current president’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, put the brakes on it for now. But I doubt he has read this book.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States. He was the fourth who had served as a general, the third to belong to the Whig Party, and he was the second to die in office. It was from cholera, after he drank some suspicious milk and ate a bowl of cherries. Ya gotta be more careful in the hot summer months in Washington, DC, a city that had open sewers at the time.

Fred Michmershuizen

The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Zachary Taylor was born and raised in Kentucky, then later moved to Louisiana. He owned plantations, and he owned slaves. Yet despite his being from the South, he actually sided more with the North when disputes arose over whether or not the new states and territories in the West would be slave or free. Taylor was a unionist, and he vigorously opposed anyone from the Soutth who even so much as hinted at secession. Good for him.

Before becoming president, Taylor had a long career in the Army. He fought in the War of 1812 and in the Mexican-American War, and he also fought the Indians in the Black Hawk War in Illinois and the Second Seminole War in Florida. He was not considered a great general, but he did become famous as one. His nickname was “Old Rough and Ready.” This helped get him elected in 1848. He ran against Lewis Cass, a Democrat from Michigan. He had not been elected to anything before becoming president, and he did not have very good political skills. His presidency lasted only a year and change.

Some fun facts about Zachary Taylor:

  • One of his daughters married Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become president of the Confederacy! (But she died three months after the marriage, of malaria.)
  • He was an admirer of Thomas Jefferson.
  • He was often disheveled and wore sloppy clothes, even as a general.
  • He had a bad temper, and he carried personal grudges.
  • Not very educated or worldly.
  • He never got into the habit of voting.
  • It’s not in the book, but many had speculated that Taylor might have been poisoned! His body was exhumed in 1991, but no traces of arsenic were found.

Fred MichmershuizenI found “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” by K. Jack Bauer to be a bit tedious. It was indeed a well-researched book, with plenty of footnotes and maps, and I found the analysis was solid and thoughtful. Yet for some reason I just did not enjoy this, the way I have eagerly devoured so many other presidential biographies I have been reading. (In my opinion the choice of a cover picture is atrocious, the worst I have ever seen.) And unfortunately, despite the author’s careful gathering of all the available facts, I felt I just could not really figure Taylor out by reading this. But I don’t think the author could either, as he summed it up well with the last line of his book: “He was and remains an enigma.”

James K. Polk

It was in 1845, during the single term of James K. Polk, our nation’s 11th president, that someone coined the term Manifest Destiny — the concept that our country would one day go all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The original 13 states were all on the Eastern Seaboard, but it did not take long for Americans to begin moving west, with new states and territories stretching all the way to the Mississippi River Valley. At the dawn of the 19th Century, Jefferson doubled the size of our country with the Louisiana Purchase. But it was Polk, four decades later, who would pave the way for us to have what would become a coast-to-coast country. If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, or had a beverage from Starbucks, or if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie, you can thank James K. Polk. He used every tool at his disposal. He encouraged pioneers to pack up everything and trek across the Rocky Mountains in covered wagons. He sent the military to the frontier with vague or misleading instructions. If the generals went too far and grabbed too much territory, he wasn’t going to stop them. He got the British to the bargaining table over the jointly occupied Oregon Territory, securing what would eventually become the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

But the grand prize was Alta California (upper California) and to get this, as well as the vast New Mexico Territory, he would play hardball with Mexico, eventually taking us to war. The Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande and attacked General Zachary Taylor’s troops, which gave Polk the opening he needed. Blood had been “spilled on American soil,” giving us an excuse to declare war, invade and occupy Mexico City. In the last days of the Tyler presidency, Texas had been added to the union as a state, but nobody at the time could agree on what the actual boundaries were. Polk took care of all that.

On the Fourth of July in 1848, on the very day that he attended a ceremony in which the cornerstone for the Washington Monument was laid, Polk held in his hands the final signed copy of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war. Mexico got $15.8 million, and we got approximately one million square miles, what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Cue the Village People song “Go West.”

At this point I should also mention slavery. All this acquisition of new territory was controversial at the time. Many in the north did not want us to acquire more territory because they feared this would lead to more slave states and would upset the balance of power in Congress. Many in the south were all for it though, because, yay slavery. Polk himself did not take a strong stand one way or the other on slavery, but, like many other presidents of the era both good and bad, he himself was a slave owner. Just a decade later, slavery would split our country in a tragic war, but that would be a fight for future presidents.

Trained as a lawyer, James Knox Polk got his start in politics as a clerk for the Tennessee state senate, before getting elected to the Tennessee state house of representatives. He then served seven terms in the in the U.S. House of Representatives. He became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later became Speaker of the House. Leaving Washington with hopes of returning someday as president, Polk was elected governor of Tennessee but then lost his re-election bid and lost again when he ran a third time. Having just suffered two humiliating losses at the ballot box, he was a bit of a surprise candidate in the election of 1844 when he got the Democratic Party nomination, facing the Whig candidate, Henry Clay. He promised he would serve just one term, and he kept that promise. Sadly, he died in June 1849, just three months after leaving office.

Like all Democrats in that era, he did not believe the federal government had any business spending money on “internal improvements” and he vetoed various infrastructure bills, including one that would have funded harbors on the Great Lakes.

He had a hard working, loyal cabinet, with the exception of his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, who was a vacillating, scheming troublemaker.

Some fun facts about Polk:

  • Born in a log cabin!
  • He was a workaholic and a micromanager who rarely took vacations and did not allow his cabinet secretaries to stray far from the capital.
  • He was a disciple of Andrew Jackson.
  • Married to Sarah. They had no children, possibly because he might have become sterile after undergoing a gruesome surgery for urinary stones when he was young.
  • At the time he was elected in 1844, he was in his late 40s and was the youngest to have ever been elected president.
  • To this day, he is the only Speaker of the House to later become president.

Fred Michmershuizen presidential biographies

There are many biographies of Polk to choose from. I read “Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America” by Walker R. Borneman. It was a page-turner. Complete with helpful maps and high-quality portraits of key players, I found it engrossing and I could not put it down. The author makes a strong case that Polk set himself above many other presidents by listing four very specific policy goals at the outset of his presidency, accomplishing them, and then stepping aside. The author also points out that Polk, in deciding to go to war with Mexico and getting Congress to rubber stamp it, wrested the war-making decision, rightly or wrongly, away from the legislative and to the executive branch.

John Tyler

Like Barbra Streisand and Pete Townsend, the 10th President had a large, prominent nose.

He fathered 15 children with two different wives. His first wife, Letitia Tyler, popped out eight children and then died, making Tyler a widower. She was the first first lady to die while her husband was in office.

While he was still president, at age 53, John Tyler married again, to a wealthy 24-year-old named Julia Gardiner. Yes, she was just 24! They remained happily married long after his presidency and she popped out seven children. Julia Gardiner Tyler came from a rich family and was a society girl. She hired a publicist who named her “The Lovely Lady Presidentress” in newspaper articles, a title that did not stick.

Tyler survived a ghastly cannon fire disaster aboard a brand new Navy battleship in which his Secretary of State, his Secretary of the Navy, and several other dignitaries were killed. Julia’s father was also killed, and Tyler carried her off the boat in his arms after she fainted.

Tyler was elected vice president under William Henry Harrison (aka Old Tippecanoe; their campaign slogan had been “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”) but Harrison died after a month in office. A president had never died in office before, and the line of succession under the constitution wasn’t considered entirely clear on what to do. Tyler fought those who wanted to refer to him as “acting president” and took control of the federal government and the Cabinet, and took the presidential oath of office, setting a precedent for the smooth and orderly transition of power.

Fred Michmershuizen

As president, Tyler successfully negotiated a dispute with Great Britain over the border between Maine and Canada. He opened up trade channels with China. He strengthened the Navy. He fought hard to annex Texas, which had recently declared independence from Mexico, and he finally accomplished that just days before he left office. He clashed with the powerful Senator Henry Clay.

Tyler issued tons of vetoes, and that caused many in Congress to hate him. He was burned in effigy, there was a move to impeach him, and his political opponents labeled him “His Accidency.” In an act of defiance, his entire Cabinet save one resigned on the same day. He had been elected on the Whig ticket, but when he did not go along with what the party wanted the Whigs expelled him. In the election of 1844 he tried running under his own party but it was futile. He later dropped out of the race and threw his support to Polk, largely to prevent Clay, whom he loathed, from getting elected.

Earlier in his career, Tyler had served in the Virginia state legislature and as governor of Virginia, and he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

John Tyler, the nation’s 10th president, was not the first nor would he be the last to own slaves. Like many of the late 18th and early 19th Century presidents, Tyler was born into a slave society, an economy that was dependent upon forced, unpaid labor. Most of our early presidents knew that this system was unsustainable, and most also realized that the divisions between north and south over the institution would ultimately lead to civil war. Tyler, sadly, toward the end of his life, betrayed the constitution he had sworn to uphold and died on the wrong side of history. Less than two years before his death, the aged former president participated in a peace commission to avert conflict, but he ultimately sided with Virginia in seceding from the union. He was then elected to the House of Representatives — for the Confederacy. This was long after he had left the White House and just months before he died. His coffin was draped in the Confederate flag. In my view he died a traitor to the United States, which taints his what he accomplished as president. This is sad, because his accomplishments were not minor.

As presidential biographies go, I found Gary May’s “John Tyler,” part of the American Presidents Series, to be adequate. It was a short book about someone who is today a mostly forgotten president, but I sure learned a lot.