And just in time for Presidents' Day, I find I'm focusing on the Presidents between the Revolutionary era and the Civil War. More specifically, for some perverse reason I've taken an interest in the period 1836-1861, between Jackson and Lincoln. There's eight of 'em: Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan. Eight Presidents in 25 years, each of whom served one term or less. (Two died in office.)
The main theme running through this period, of course, was the looming conflict over slavery. "Slavery came out of the shadows and into the daylight of American politics," writes Ted Widmer in his biography of Martin Van Buren. "The consensus not to regulate or even discuss slavery began to erode during Van Buren's presidency ...". And Van Buren set the tone for most of his successors until Lincoln: "It is difficult to pin down exactly where Martin Van Buren stood on the topic." Like most of his contemporaries, he seems to have been most interested in trying to compromise the issue away, looking for the magic formula that would make everybody happy. "What worked so well for Van Buren was not that he ardently supported slavery, or that he fought it, but that he was perceived as a reasonable thinker who could bridge opposing points of view." (All quotes from Widmer, pp. 113-114.)
There is something both tedious and excruciating about studying this period. You think about the enslaved Americans who sweated daily under often sadistic conditions. You think about the frustration of the abolitionists. You are astonished by the stubbornness and the stupidity of the endless attempts at compromise between fundamentally irreconcilable systems and worldviews.
And yet, these weren't bad people. They were simply and profoundly average.
It really makes you think.