A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents, 1837-1861. Edited by Joel H. Silbey. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014. 483 pp.
The American presidency is no stranger to mediocrity. The quarter century prior to the Civil War mirrors the particular challenge of leadership in a nation splintering under the hammer blows of slavery and sectionalism. Of the eight men who occupied the White House between 1837 and 1861, none was elected to a second term. Undistinguished and lacking in charisma, only one--James K. Polk--has been considered by scholars as an effective chief executive. Even then, Young Hickory's reputation has been tarnished by charges of launching an immoral war against Mexico. More problematic has been the ineffectiveness of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan in their handling of the tensions exploding in the 1850s. Against this backdrop, accomplished scholar Joel Silbey has assembled a stellar group of historians to reexamine the narrative of the era and to place those events in the context of the most recent historiography.
The volume commences with four fine essays on the major themes of the period--politics, expansion, sectionalism, and foreign policy--authored by Silbey, Michael Morrison, Nicole Etcheson, and Jay Sexton. Sixteen detailed presidential case studies follow. Martin Van Buren's reputation does not improve. While M. Philip Lucas charts the Magician's transition from partisan leader to statesman commencing in 1828, the cold reality of Jonathan Atkins's essay reveals the New Yorker's failed term, dominated by the economic repercussions of the Panic of 1837. William Shade breathes new life into the legend surrounding William Henry Harrison, arguing that Old Tip was a substantial candidate who ran a serious and well-organized campaign in 1840. Ed Crapol constructs a balanced approach to the duel for power between Henry Clay and John Tyler. While giving Harry of the West due credit for his party leadership and domestic programs, Crapol reminds us of Tyler's energy and achievements in foreign affairs.
The enigmatic Polk merits the attention of four chapters. M. J. Heale focuses on the Tennessean's "desperate mission" to restore republican government and to crush federalism. In advancing both his domestic and foreign policy agendas, a political price was paid, but "the bonds of the Democratic Party were grievously strained rather than broken" (p. 213). In his well-crafted discussion of domestic politics, veteran Polk scholar...