The Making of the Ex-Presidents, 1797-1993: Six Recurrent Models.


Historians have long indulged in the exercise of categorizing U.S. presidents into groupings such as "great," "near great," "average," and "failures." Given the expanded profiles now enjoyed by retired chief executives, it is perhaps time to subject ex-presidents to similar scrutiny and classification. To date, there have been forty-two presidents, counting the ever-pesky Grover Cleveland twice. Excluding the incumbents, the eight presidents who died in office, and James Polk and Chester Arthur (who lived too brief a time after leaving office to be considered here), thirty-one presidents remain for our study. Each can appropriately be placed into one of the following six categories: Still Ambitious, Exhausted Volcanoes, Political Dabblers, First Citizens, Embracers of a Cause, and Seekers of Vindication. This article first describes these categories and the ex-presidents included within them. It then concludes with some summary observations and assessments about the ex-presidency.

Still Ambitious

The Still Ambitious ex-presidents are those whose appetites for power remained unsated even after serving in the nation's highest political office. Surely, William Herndon's famous description of his law partner's ambition as "a little engine that knew no rest"(1) applies at least as much to the five ex-presidents in this group as it did to Abraham Lincoln.

Few men have left the presidency with as much unfulfilled ambition as did Martin Van Buren. After suffering defeat in his 1840 reelection bid against William Henry Harrison, Van Buren retired to New York. He longed for a comeback. As the 1844 Democratic Convention approached, Van Buren seemed the near certain nominee. Then, he and his Whig rival Henry Clay issued simultaneous letters opposing the immediate annexation of slaveholding Texas, a ploy to keep this issue out of the upcoming campaign. The maneuver enraged southern Democrats and expansionists, and Van Buren lost the nomination to dark horse candidate Polk. Although Van Buren now claimed he was "sincerely and heartily desirous to wear the honors and enjoyments of private life uninterruptedly to the end,"(2) his ambition resurfaced in 1848, just as the slavery issue was intensifying sectionalist tensions. That year, his opposition to slavery and support of the Wilmot Proviso secured him the presidential nomination of the Free Soil party. Defeated yet again, Van Buren retired for good. He died in July 1862.

After two scandal-ridden terms, Ulysses Grant should have retired from politics in 1877. But he missed the glory and acclaim of the presidency, and in 1880 he allowed his name to go before the Republican Convention. He led on the first thirty-five tallies but ultimately lost the nomination to James Garfield. More misfortune plagued Grant's final years. Bankrupt and diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, he hurriedly completed his memoirs to earn money for his wife. He died in July 1885.

"I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again." So instructed Frances Cleveland to a White House servant as the First Lady and her husband, Grover, left to attend the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison, who had defeated Cleveland in 1888. "We are coming back just four years from today,"(3) Mrs. Cleveland promised. Her husband had won more popular votes than Harrison (but lost in the electoral college), he had been the only Democrat since the Civil War to win the presidency, and no one else of stature was available. Thus, Cleveland's renomination in 1892 was ensured, and this time he won, attaining an unprecedented second, nonconsecutive term.

After winning the presidential election of 1904, Theodore Roosevelt pledged never to "be a candidate for or accept another nomination."(4) Later, he admitted that he would have willingly cut off his right hand not to have uttered that promise. His youth and boundless energy all but ensured that Roosevelt's ambitions would remain unsated when he left office in 1909. After attending the inauguration of his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt departed for a well-publicized hunting trip to Africa, followed by a tour of Europe. Even before returning home in June 1910, he had grown disenchanted with Taft's conservatism and political ineptitude. A breach had opened between the Republican Party's Progressive and Old Guard factions, creating an opening for Roosevelt to launch a third-term candidacy in 1912. He won the primaries held that year, but Taft controlled the party apparatus and secured renomination. Roosevelt then created the Progressive ("Bull Moose") party with himself as standard bearer. This split in the Republican Party ranks enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to prevail, with Roosevelt finishing a strong second.

When Europe plunged into war in 1914, Roosevelt called for U.S. intervention. He wanted the Republican nomination in 1916, but party leaders, angry over his past divisiveness, bypassed him. But by 1918, Roosevelt's continued popularity made him the early front-runner for the 1920 nomination. "Yes, I will run," he said, "if the people want me."(5) Roosevelt might well have realized his ambition, but he died in January 1919.

Taft is unique among the Still Ambitious ex-presidents in that he did not aspire to reclaim his job. Rather, he longed to obtain the chief justiceship, the post he had coveted from the outset of his political career. The means by which he achieved his dream had rather Machiavellian overtones. In 1910, Taft appointed a sixty-six-year-old Democrat, Douglass White, as chief justice. At such a relatively advanced age, White could not be expected to hold the job for too many years. But then came Wilson's eight-year reign as president. Taft could only hope that White would not die, as Wilson could be expected to appoint a fellow Democrat to the vacancy. Luck smiled on Taft. Not only did White survive the Wilson era, but he died in May 1921, right after Republican Warren Harding had assumed the presidency. He duly appointed Taft to the post, and the ex-president's true ambition was at last fulfilled.

Exhausted Volcanoes

Exhausted Volcanoes, a metaphor borrowed from nineteenth-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who used it to describe members of rival William Gladstone's Cabinet, refers here to the six ex-presidents who did little or nothing of consequence in their retirement years. Ill health, personal temperament, and individual circumstances are among the causative factors that explain their torpor after so many years of high excitement and ceaseless activity.

One can place George Washington in this inglorious category with a touch of regret. However, as he left office in 1797, he hoped to "pass the remnant of a life (worn down with cares) in ruminating on past scenes and contemplating the future grandeur of this rising empire."(6) Washington remained aloof from the internal bickering within his Federalist Party. During the crisis with revolutionary France, he accepted an appointment as lieutenant general of the armed forces. However, the job was largely ceremonial, and his army never saw action during this undeclared naval war. Washington died in December 1799.

In 1825, when James Monroe left the presidency, he was "retired now from public life with no desire to ever enter it again."(7) He largely shunned partisan politics. In 1828, he rejected requests that he accept the vice presidential nomination of John Quincy Adams's party. Monroe devoted most of his attention not to civic affairs but rather to the $75,000 personal debt he had accrued during his long public life. To help pay off this sum, he repeatedly petitioned Congress to reimburse him for sums he alleged the government owed him for services rendered as far back as the Revolutionary War. A sympathetic Congress appropriated repayment sums totaling nearly $60,000. Monroe accepted these remunerations but thought himself entitled to more. Distracted by his financial woes, he never completed his memoirs. He died in July 1831.

After attending the swearing in of his successor in 1857, Franklin Pierce retired to New Hampshire. He tried to help to restore his wife's health, which had declined since the death of their son in a train wreck just prior Pierce's own inauguration. Badly depressed, Pierce resumed his heavy drinking habit, a weakness that had plagued him sporadically during his career. Asked what an ex-president ought to do, Pierce listlessly replied, "There is nothing left ... but to get drunk." Perceived by contemporaries as a failure, Pierce languished on the political sidelines during the twelve remaining years of his life. When the Civil War came, Pierce initially issued weak statements criticizing the secessionists and supporting the Union. Even so, he remained sympathetic to the South, he continued to argue that slavery should be kept in that region, and he even claimed that those in "the North have been the first wrong-doers." As casualties mounted, Pierce lost faith in the cause. Some labeled him a traitor. He did see the Union made whole again, but by then he was completely alcoholic. He died in October 1869, leaving behind a doubly lamentable legacy as one of the least accomplished presidents and ex-presidents in history.(8)

Calvin Coolidge's inclusion among the Exhausted Volcanoes will arouse no surprise. Even as president, he had languidly indulged himself with a daily nap, and he could barely wait for his term to expire in 1929. Retired, Coolidge avoided serious involvement in political affairs. He also "loathed the idea of becoming an elder statesman." His autobiography touches on his presidency only briefly. Even if Coolidge had not been so inclined to disengage from public life, the upheavals wrought by the Great Depression probably would have rendered him politically obsolete anyway. As 1932 approached, some Republicans talked of...

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