Four Presidential Essays
Here’s where we lose the script, wander off alone in the American wilderness. Martin Van Buren, president thanks to Andrew Jackson, walks the halls of the Executive Mansion on Inauguration Day, 1837, all alone. Jackson back to Tennessee. Quincy Adams in Congress, an enemy from the other party, anyway. His wife, dead almost twenty years, and his children, three of five who make it to adulthood. All gone.
He is alone, too, in a way no president has been before, because Madison dies at his home just nine months before the inauguration, and with him gone, the primary knowledge of the Founding Fathers is gone. Whatever Washington knew — or Adams or Jefferson or Franklin, or Jay or Hamilton — it’s all lost when Madison dies. Now here is Martin Van Buren, son of Kinderhook, New York, alone in the Executive Mansion, the first president born in an independent United States of America. He never knew the struggles to birth the country.
Is this where our troubles begin? For the first time, a president cannot ask the Constitution’s authors, What did you mean? How does this work? Within a generation, we will be at war with ourselves. When does the rickety fear inside our hearts, that fear that all of this may one day fall apart, when will it take hold?
Almost certainly not on that day in March of 1837. He is continuing Jacksonian politics, keeping the Union preserved by working with the South and its peculiar institution, which must not be disturbed.
Still, his footsteps echo in the hallway. Alone too often.
There is a story about Christmas 1835, in the Jackson White House. Vice President Van Buren plays games of tag with the Jackson children, and at one point, he must stand on one leg and chant, Here I stand all ragged and dirty, / if you don’t come kiss me I’ll run like a turkey! No one does, and so the man who will be president-elect by next Christmas runs after the children like the bird, “strutted like a game gobbler” in search of a mate.
When we search, and do not find, when does the fear arrive? The initial shock, the redoubled efforts, the sorrow of solitude, the false bravado, the breaking down. Behind them all, the fear. A year and a few months from that Christmas, and Martin Van Buren walks the Executive Mansion halls. What is his mood? What is the nation’s?
With the fear comes the panic, and with the Panic of 1837 comes ruin, and with the Panic comes his new name. They used to call him the Little Magician for the way he could manipulate politics. They used to call him the Sly Fox for his cleverness. They used to call him Old Kinderhook, O.K. (this is how this term came to prominence) for his birthplace. His wife, Hannah — she called his name with a soft Dutch accent: Maarten.
Now they call him Martin Van Ruin. Now they sing, Van, Van, is a used up man. Now arrives the fear.
He gets four years. He tries for eight, but the Whigs nominate a popular general. He tries again in ’44, but the dark horse Polk surges past him. He tries again in ’48, a Free Soil Party man. But nothing. And when he dies, the country is split. Robert E. Lee will have forced George McClellan to withdraw from the outskirts of Richmond. In Old Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s heart will finally be overtaxed, his breathing spent. Whatever awaits him on the other side, whatever awaits our country, he will not know. Perhaps he will not fear it, either. Here he stands, all ragged and dirty. Everything will be O.K. in the end.
On the day he sits for the first photograph of a president, John Quincy Adams is not the president and has not been the president for fourteen years.
On the day he sits for the first photograph of a president, John Quincy Adams weeps over his mother, visits a female seminary, shakes about one hundred hands, gives a speech, meets a dwarf dressed like Napoleon, and gets a small rock lodged under his eyelid. This is one day as described in his diary, which is less than what actually happened, but more than what’s visible in the photograph. He was president. In the photograph, he is a Congressman.
That’s present tense: August 1, 1843.
John Quincy Adams is past tense.
We think of him, if we think of him, in the past. We have no regular reminders of him, the way we do with other presidents, but he spans the opening chapters of America. George Washington appoints him minister to the Netherlands; he meets Abraham Lincoln when they both serve in Congress. There’s history in this family, chronicling, observing. Family trait.
Past tense again. He went everywhere. Traveled to Europe with his father during the Revolution. Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, England. Russia, when going there was like going to the moon.
Future tense: 138 years after the day John Quincy Adams’s photo is taken, I will be five years old, visiting Washington, DC. I will remember little of this trip — a cab, a hotel restaurant — but I will clearly remember a moment of a film in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, a locomotive approaching the screen. I will not remember the moon rock on display in the lobby, in front of the Apollo 11 capsule. I will not remember the Spirit of Saint Louis hanging next to the Bell X-1. I will not remember the Wright Brothers’ flying machine.
The Smithsonian exists because James Smithson, an English chemist who never visited the United States, makes a bequest to the United States to create an institution of learning. The Smithsonian also exists because John Quincy Adams ensures that the funds are used to follow Smithson’s wishes.
Past tense: as president, he was thwarted by his enemies, but as Congressman, he found his turn to be the thorn in the side. He fought slavery. When the Congress instituted a gag rule preventing the introduction of anti-slavery petitions, he introduced pro-slavery petitions in order to speak against them. When they threatened to censure him and remove him from his chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he called their bluff, telling them, “I have constituents to go to who will have something to say if this House expels me. Nor will it be long before gentlemen see me here again!” They did not censure him.
Future tense: the man in the photograph of 1843 will be perhaps visible in a mural that will be painted in 1938 by Hale Woodruff at Talladega College, an institution of learning founded by former slaves. Woodruff will paint three murals depicting the Amistad mutiny, in which captured Africans rose up and slew their captors. No one in the middle panel of the mural — the trial scene — resembles the photograph.
We are comparing a 1938 painting of an 1841 event to an 1843 photograph. Some layers of representation are in play here.
Past tense: on February 24, 1841, John Quincy Adams spoke for four hours in front of the Supreme Court in defense of the Amistad rebels. After his closing argument, he remarked on the passage of time and how he had last argued in 1809 “before the same Court, but not the same judges — nor aided by the same associates — nor resisted by the same opponents,” all of whom he had outlived. He prayed that the current Justices might go to their “final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead.”
The rebels were found not guilty and repatriated to Africa.
Present tense: let’s finish with the photograph taken on an August 1st in New York. We may look all we like, understanding completely that this is indeed John Quincy Adams, who had, fourteen years earlier, been the sixth president of the United States; we may read his diary and know what happens just before and just after this (and how odd that both involve his eyes, the weeping and the injury); we may lay our own futures over him, his photographs, his representation and invisibility in a mural; we may consider him the bridge between the Father of the Country and the Great Emancipator; we may see him, the first president to ride a train, at the start of another bridge that leads to a small boy watching a train on a film in an institute dedicated to the exploration of the sky and beyond; but finally we will see in this picture only an old man, the time before him and the time after him both history and mystery, both clear and opaque, a past, a past, a past, a present, a future, a past.
The State of the Union is red. The State of the Union is warlike, blood-tinged. The State of this Union is unknown to you in the present day, the long smear of history obscuring your view between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The State of the Union is red with exertion, expansion, with Texas annexation, with the incursion of foreign troops upon American soil (the red-faced shame of invasion, even invented; the red-faced fury of invasion, even invented). The State of the Union is, as regards Mexico, not of the American character which it is our desire to cultivate with all foreign nations. The State of the Union is a man from Tennessee, James Knox Polk, asking Congress for a declaration, receiving it, sending men into war’s red mouth. The State of the Union is Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee serving in the same army, blue and gray subsumed under the red of war. The State of the Union is the Halls of Montezuma; the State of the Union is an occupied Mexico City; the State of the Union is one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-three men killed in battle in less than two years, about half the number who will be killed in two days at Shiloh twenty years hence. The State of the Union is red, and read, meaning a written document delivered to Congress from the president, as established by Jefferson (Jefferson, always better read than heard), as it will be until Wilson addresses Congress in seventy years. The State of the Union is words arranged in an order to create an effect, a tactical plan, a charm offensive, straight talk to the American People via their representatives, for Polk, always something red.
The State of the Union is white. The State of the Union is a sullied white, a stained white, a white working overtime to maintain its existence. The State of the Union is a white president who owns human beings and seeks to preserve that peculiar institution. The State of the Union is a white man who owns over fifty other men at his death, fewer than one hundred days after leaving office. The State of the Union is a question we have asked for its entire existence: how are we to live together as equals? The State of the Union is a line drawn between the numerator and the denominator, three-fifths, a line Mason and Dixon trace onto the map, a line extending into the territories — beneath this, above that. The State of the Union is an 8 percent cash profit on his plantation; the State of the Union is over half of his slaves’ children dying before age fifteen. The State of the Union is its past and future meeting as fellow Congressmen John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln oppose Polk’s war and its expansion of slavery. The State of the Union is white, a surrender, a giving up. The State of the Union asks, what can we do? The State of the Union says this peculiar institution simply is — nothing to be done.
The State of the Union is blue. The State of the Union is below. The State of the Union promises one term only, serves one term only. The State of the Union is true blue, is loyal. The State of the Union is hiding its weaknesses, its fractures. The State of the Union does not have long, twelve years until that congressman from Illinois is inaugurated and the guns fire on Fort Sumter, thirteen years until the dead of two days at Shiloh outnumber the dead of every previous war combined. The State of the Union is a bluish tinge on the lips of the dying Polk, dead three months after leaving office. The State of the Union is an acronym, SOTU, a continuance: so, too. The State of the Union goes on. The State of the Union endures. Listen to what the President says each year as Congress and cameras watch: The State of the Union is strong, the President will likely say. The vice president will clap from behind. Depending on the election, the Speaker of the House may or may not applaud. The State of the Union is strong. The State of the Union endures. The State of the Union asks, How are we to live together? And, Well, what now? Well, what now?
Have we had a president like him before? The easy grace, the timeless cool, the effortlessness of the three point shot dropping in the basket. First, the young candidate for Senate on the convention stage charming the faithful, then four years later the stadium full as he accepts the nomination, and in five months he stands in the bright cold and takes the oath — when in our lives had we seen that? The differences were obvious, the differences went beyond the surface — we’d never had a president like him before.
We’d never had a president like him before, the focal point of a white-hot rage flooding every channel, tea kettles of minds continuously at the boil, the outrage never stopping, the coded language we didn’t need an enigma to understand: Thug. Monkey. The ways they used his middle name as an insult, Barack Hussein Obama, the way they turned the answers into more questions for their fires, the way they found their echo chambers in cable networks and 140 characters, how the resonances grew to stadium-level noises. We’d had characters before him — the Fool, the Philanderer, the Wimp — but we had not seen this before.
Had we seen a president like this before? Over the hills of Afghanistan, a predator flies nonstop, scanning the landscape. Eight years prior, we had bumper stickers that replaced “endless war” with “end this war,” and what did we get for our efforts? We supported our troops by replacing them with machines. Remember that April night when the networks said that the president would make a statement? Remember watching the static live shot of the podium, the red carpet of the long hallway? Remember him finally appearing, the walk to the podium? All our answers just seem to raise more questions. All our solutions just seem to create more problems, both the same and different from before.
Had we seen a president like him before? Every Democrat since Truman tried and failed to reform health care. In a year, he turned a nightmare recession into continued job growth. He worked on pay inequality, signed arms treaties, improved school lunches. When, in his second inaugural, he mentioned “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” didn’t your throat catch? When he paused while speaking in Charleston, then sang “Amazing Grace,” the crowd cheering and joining, had you ever heard that before?
Had anyone seen the president we thought we elected? What happened to the reformer? What happened to the crusader? The rich got richer, the banks got stronger, the dollars seemed to flow in one direction, only up. All those fears from the right — He’ll redistribute wealth, he’ll take our guns — never came to fruition. Are we better off than we were eight years ago? All those opportunities lost, all those chances wasted. Did we progress with a progressive in office, or did it seem like we just ran hard enough to stay in the same place?
They’ve never seen a president like him before, and now the absolute terror of what may follow in his wake — the door thrown open wide. Their song of sealing the borders — that will echo for quite some time. Their chants of all lives matter made us pay more attention to them than we wanted or needed to. When they said I just want my country back, they meant from him but also from them and from you. Part of his legacy is that the party of Lincoln threw itself into the hands of the paranoid and terrified. The party that freed the slaves became the party that remembered the slave uprisings, and now their fears guide them in unfamiliar territories, lands with strange costume, strange buildings, a leader they’ve never seen before because their leaders have always looked like them.
Have I ever seen a president like him before? I’ve never seen a president at all, but him I heard in a small town in Virginia during the first campaign. Tens of thousands of people crowding the campus circle, waiting through the rain — the biggest thing to happen in that town since the Civil War, since Lincoln visited — and we couldn’t get close enough to see the stage. In the press of our fellow citizens, we heard the cheers go up as the candidate stepped on stage. How did he look? I’ve seen photos — no jacket, white sleeves rolled up. A light rain falling. But I didn’t see him at that time. The first debate had been the night before. I remember he said, “You know, John McCain had a lot to say about me last night, but he didn’t have a lot to say about you.” We cheered. We’d never heard a candidate like him before.about the author