From Presidents’ Failures to Their Wives’ Successes


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from this weekend’s annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  For another report on this panel see Elise Leal’s post from earlier today. Enjoy–JF

The 2016 conference of the Organization of American Historians came to a close on Sunday. After beginning with a discussion of the least successful presidents, it ended with presentations on two of the most consequential wives of presidents (or would-be presidents). My last session of the meeting was “Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the ‘First Lady,’” featuring Amy Greenberg on Sarah Childress Polk and Stacey Robertson on Jessie Benton Frémont.

As editor of the letters of James K. Polk, in whose administration both Sarah Polk (obviously) and Jessie Frémont were active, I took almost embarrassingly copious notes. I won’t bore you with these. Drs. Greenberg and Robertson will, when ready, publish their findings much more fully and precisely than any summary of mine could. I will note, though, that their papers fit together in a welcome synergy.

Much scholarship of nineteenth-century gender history has divided into two areas: the domestically oriented sphere in which most women operated and the quest by some women and men for more nearly equal rights and opportunities. Yesterday’s papers showed us that women’s political empowerment (to use a word that neither the speakers nor their subjects did) arose through both avenues. Sarah Polk became one of the most powerful people in American politics by assisting her husband in a discreet and submissive manner. Jessie Frémont promoted husband


Sarah Childress Polk

John C. Frémont’s presidential campaign by, literally, stepping onto the political stage herself. Greenberg’s and Robertson’s papers thus bridge two large bodies of scholarship that, considered together in new ways, may yield new insights into both separate spheres and the early days of women’s rights. Along these lines, commentator Susan Johnson suggested that historians of politics take the household, not the individual, as the unit of action.

On another level, the panelists’ scholarship should help draw into the historical spotlight two women whose political activity (especially Sarah Polk’s) has faded into undeserved obscurity. Matt Gallman, the other commentator, pointed out that rates Polk as the twenty-third most influential first lady, right behind Julia Dent Grant. Like her husband’s a century ago, perhaps her star is now on the rise.

Until next year!

Editing Presidents


CohenMichael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Enjoy–JF

My third day at OAH 2016 included a real treat. Not often does a session unite three of my historical passions: documentary editing, the U.S. presidency, and the history of education. “Presidents and Patronage,” however, did just that. Exploring patronage in a broader sense than job appointments (a dismal task that I know ate up much of James Polk’s time and patience), editors from the papers of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson told us some of their exciting discoveries about these men’s lesser-known activities.

I was glad to hear all the panelists, plus the commentator and audience, discuss not only the first three presidents but also the nuts and bolts of a documentary editor’s job. Few people, after all, really know what it is we do. We do not, as some may guess, abridge nonfiction films. Rather, we prepare published editions (in print or online) of primary sources, usually the papers or letters of a major historical figure. As a result, if you wish to draw on the writings of Washington, Adams, or Jefferson, you need not travel to numerous archives, decipher terrible handwriting on water-damaged sheets, and research every “Mr. Brown” mentioned. The panelists have located, transcribed, and annotated the documents so that you just reach to a bookshelf or navigate to a website.

Neal Millikan, discussing the field, focused on the task of identifying major stories for each volume of the Washington Papers. Though the documents address numerous topics, finding the main plot line helps to guide document selection, annotation, and of course writing jacket copy at the end. Dr. Millikan, currently working on the last—the last!—volume in the presidential series, found that plot line for the first president’s final six months in office to involve his concern with the building of Washington, D.C. Worried that it might not be complete by 1800, as required by law, he anxiously corresponded with the commissioners overseeing it. Millikan mentioned what Washington described as a “jocular letter from the Capitol”: a missive from a relative, written from the perspective of Congress’s future building, that lamented no one’s seeming to care about it. The president probably got both a laugh and a pang out of that.

Sara Georgini explained that an indexing dilemma led to further insight into John Adams’s accomplishments while a commissioner to the United Kingdom in the 1780s. (Her remarks touched a chord among the editors in the room, on and off the panel, who shared their own frustration with the crucial but challenging job of indexing an edition.) The Adams Papers try to index his doings as public and private activities, but he did much on the border between those two. This helped Ms. Georgini to discover, and to show through the documents, the importance of Adams’s working on the fringe of formal diplomacy to bend European intellectuals toward support of U.S. culture. She dubbed the job “cultural diplomacy.”

Ellen Hickman, after agreeing on the challenge of indexing Adams, moved the discussion to Jefferson’s efforts in 1818–19—the period of volume 13 of the Jefferson Retirement Series, due out next January—to get Virginia to establish its state university at Charlottesville. She shared the sentiment (with which I’m well familiar) that whichever documentary volume one has just been immersed in seems the most important in the series. But this one, she promised us, really is the most important (until volume 14). Jefferson stepped out of his “self-focused” retirement to engage once more in public life, though trying his best to stay invisible to the public eye. When the legislature created a committee to plan the university, he completed its report before the committee met; later he, anonymously, authored the bill that located UVA at Charlottesville.

As commentator, Gordon Wood heaped well-deserved praise on all three speakers. Reminding us of the sad fact that most historical monographs are forgotten within a few years of publication (thank you, UVa Press, for displaying mine here nearly four years later!), he pointed out that the editions that Millikan, Georgini, and Hickman produce will nourish scholarship and bring primary sources to students and others for many decades to come. Their massive knowledge, gained through close study of their presidents’ writings and broad study of their context, make them sound like they know these men personally. Dr. Wood might even have added that the editors know them better than almost any of the presidents’ contemporaries. Few if any friends learned their thoughts about every topic on which they ever wrote.

My summary does not do justice to the three papers or to Wood’s commentary. I’ve highlighted their insights about the job of editing historical documents, but of course they went into much more depth about their historical findings. Hopefully, as Wood urged, all three panelists will publish their papers as articles. Whether they do or not, they’ve shown us just a few of the fascinating nuggets we can mine in their editions. So explore those editions, online or on paper, and use them in your research or classroom!

Start with the indexes.

History of, and at, the National Park Service


Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Enjoy–JF


Mammoth Cave. Denali. Great Smokey Mountains. Arcola Mills. The John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams homes. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s home. Through my youth and adulthood, I’ve made my way to these and many more of the sites operated by the National Park Service. No doubt, many of my fellow U.S. historians have, too. (And if you’ve never been to one, Robert Stanton wants to have a talk.) Our own experiences in the parks and their importance to the teaching of history to the American people made today’s plenary on “The National Park Service at 100: A Conversation with Robert Stanton” perfect for this year’s OAH conference.

None can speak about the NPS with more authority and experience than Dr. Stanton. Though he swore that he had not been around for the agency’s founding, he did draw on more than half a century of involvement with it. In 1962 he took a job as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton. Rising through the ranks, he served as NPS’s director, 1997–2001. Though at some point he tried to retire, Stanton remains active in the parks and preservation community, having been appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation in 2014 and currently teaching as a visiting executive professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M.

Accompanying Stanton on the stage were two of our own, famed environmental historian William Cronon and chair Gary Nash. Joan Zenzen, though scheduled to speak, could not attend. (Her absence, as Dr. Nash forewarned us, rendered this an unconstitutional session; the OAH Constitution requires gender diversity on all panels. Microphone issues at the start were, perhaps, subtle punishment for the violation.)

Anxious to leave time for questions from his co-panelists and the audience, Stanton confined his initial remarks chiefly to a review of the NPS’s history. Created by a Congressional act of 1916 (as you probably guessed from the plenary’s title), the agency actually arose after the creation of about thirty federal parks, previously administered by the Interior Department with help from the War Department. Historic sites such as Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, Dr. Cronon noted, were shifted to its jurisdiction. Now the NPS controls about four hundred areas in every state and several territories. Besides its large paid workforce, it relies on nearly two hundred thousand volunteers.

Cronon introduced the issue of race, on which Stanton had much insight. The growth of the national park system, in his view, has been in part an effort to embrace the pronoun “we,” the first word of the U.S. Constitution and a symbol of unity with which Americans always have struggled. Until 1945 some national parks segregated camping facilities. Even thereafter, economic challenges and hoteliers’ legal right to refuse accommodations to African Americans made it impossible for most black families to take the road trip to a national park that became a tradition among middle-class whites. Although blacks were involved in land stewardship very early, only in the 1960s did the NPS begin recruiting African Americans such as Stanton into leadership positions.

The conversation, guided by the speakers and by audience members, headed down more paths about the national parks’ challenges and their roles in historical education than I can summarize here. Cronon stressed the parks’ outsized influence, through their choices about how to portray history and simply what history to portray, on lesson plans in schools. Nash pointed out that historic sites run by the NPS give many visitors to the United States their first lesson in American history.

Stanton presented a thoughtful and hopeful sketch of the national stories told by the parks. Through the addition of more sites (though, alas, rarely more money), the NPS has increasingly told the stories of minorities and of the elements of our history, such as slavery and segregation, that prompt lessons for improvement rather than opportunities for celebration. Some may fear, as Jack Nicholson did in A Few Good Men, that Americans “can’t handle the truth.” But, Stanton believes, we can handle it and must hear it.

Framing that thesis were the quotations with which Stanton began and ended the session. He first quoted Stephen Mather, founding director of the NPS, who asserted that visiting the national parks makes an American a better citizen. Today, it seems to me, if the parks teach historical lessons that few dared to propose in 1916, they are fulfilling Mather’s hope. Stanton closed by quoting Frederick Douglass, whose home joined the national park system in 1962, and who thus joined its family the same year as Stanton. Unity among turbulence and difference is the theme: “We differ as waves, but we are as one as the sea.”

–Michael David Cohen

The Worst President Ever


Was Nixon the Worst?

Michael David Cohen is the editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  He is also writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence, Rhode Island.  Michael is also the author if Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Here is first post:

Greetings from OAH 2016!

Providence welcomed us historians today with a gentle spring rain. At least, by Noah’s standards. Surely I was not the only one who arrived at the Rhode Island Convention Center soaked to the bone. My umbrella fared rather worse, blown inside out by the day’s refreshing breeze. Nonetheless, after changing into dry clothes, I made it to the Exhibit Hall in time for the conference’s first plenary session.

As one who spends his days studying a U.S. presidency, I was looking forward to the presentation titled “Worst. President. Ever.” It did not disappoint. Guided by chair Claire Potter, panelists David Greenberg, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Jacob Weisberg (who assures us that, despite the original program, he is not Sean Wilentz) offered their insights both on who was the worst president and, perhaps more important, on how we should judge presidents as best or worst.

Dr. Greenberg argued that, although only a few things make a president great, our chief executives can be bad in a variety of ways. He grouped the failures into four categories: “completely insignificant and forgettable presidents” (such as Millard Fillmore, for whom, he noted, even the White House’s website offers faint praise); those who responded terribly to a crisis (think Herbert Hoover); those who accomplished much that we don’t like (some may say Indian remover Andrew Jackson); and those guilty of corruption or abuse of power, crimes “that transcend party and politics.”

Mr. Weisberg suggested similar criteria for badness. A bad president may have accomplished something harmful, through either action (entered a war or dropped atomic bombs, for example) or inaction; may not have left a significant lasting impact (cough, William Henry Harrison); or may have displayed bad character. The first two being opposites—bad impact and no impact—no president could have achieved all three types of bad.

Though they hesitated to settle on a single “Worst. President. Ever.,” their typologies led both these speakers to select the same candidate for the dubious honor. Richard Nixon, as Weisberg put it, was the only president to have attained true “Shakespearean villainy.” Despite his oft-cited accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, Nixon’s abuse of power—Greenberg’s transcendent evil and Weisberg’s character flaw—damaged the presidency and the American people’s faith in government. It propelled him to the top (or bottom) of the list.

Dr. Gordon-Reed, though she shared her co-panelists’ condemnation of Nixon, gave a different answer to the plenary’s question. Her two approaches to presidential failure were to find a leader who responded poorly to an intractable crisis and to find one who chose not to follow the best available path. The former approach yielded James Buchanan, who has so often been lambasted for his weak response to secession. But what, Gordon-Reed asked, could Buchanan have done? No promising solution presented itself.

The latter approach yielded Andrew Johnson. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere


Or was it Andrew Johnson?

proposed alternatives to his Reconstruction policies that held the hope of unifying the nation across both regional and racial lines, expanding true citizenship and independence to recently emancipated African Americans. But, owing to his “stubbornness” and to the fact that “he hated black people,” Johnson forswore that path. The president who put his “petty prejudices” ahead of the good of the nation earned the title of Worst. Buchanan can rest easy for once: not a single panelist named him President Number 44.

The speakers’ initial presentations and the questions from audience members brought much more nuance to the conversation than this summary indicates. They also brought more names. Franklin Pierce, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Thomas Jefferson all received consideration for Worst, though Gordon-Reed quickly responded, “Jefferson is no part of this conversation, okay?” I was pleased to hear at least a brief reference by Weisberg to James K. Polk, whom I study and who so rarely gets any attention, good or bad. George W. Bush came up several times, though the panelists hesitated to evaluate very recent presidents. (Weisberg did admit to having once debated, against Karl Rove and Bill Krystol, whether Bush was the worst president of the past hundred years. Weisberg lost.) Even Abraham Lincoln, the racist emancipator who angered half the nation by reunifying it, was raised by several audience members in this conversation on America’s worst president.

One question that noticeably did not come up in the plenary was whether determining overall greatness or badness is of historical value. Certainly historians and other Americans love to rank. I was excited when once surveyed for a presidential ranking. As Dickens wrote, many people prefer “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Yet, if Nixon went to China and his people bugged the Watergate, does it help for us to name him overall as 44, 36, or 12? Does it help to compare his record with James Buchanan’s? Can a presidency be graded as a whole or compared with one in another historical context? It’s a sign of a great panel that I’m left with questions as well as answers.

This was just my first session of the conference. I’m looking forward to plenty more sessions, questions, conversations with old colleagues, and meetings with new ones. Perhaps I should go easy on the discounted books, though. I’ve already bought two more than I have room for in my suitcase.