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From Old Rough and Ready to the Bachelor and the Tennessee Tailor: Out of Ineptness, Compromises, Know Nothings and Do Nothings comes a Pediatric Handbook and the Great Emancipator

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Zachary Taylor of Montebello, Virginia and born on November 24, 1784 was a lifelong military leader. He joined the Kentucky militia as a teenager and distinguished himself in Indian campaigns as well as the War of 1812 against the British. Because of his military prowess, disheveled appearance and unsophisticated manners he was known as "Old Rough and Ready." It was the result of the Mexican War that established him as a national hero in 1848. He had driven the Mexican army from Texas and captured the impregnable city of Monterrey, Mexico in 1846. Although his troops were outnumbered four to one, he defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847. He was compared to George Washington and Andrew Jackson. When the possibility of presidency came up, Taylor stated, "such an idea never entered my head nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person."

The Whig Party took notice of Zachary Taylor's national attention and using his popularity, he became the 12th President. As a resident of Louisiana, he was the first President elected in 1848 from a state west of the Mississippi River. Tensions between the North and South were intensifying when he took office. The addition of California and New Mexico territories caused the unraveling of the Missouri Compromise. When Taylor opposed extending slavery to these territories, Southern states threatened secession. The President's response was swift - he threatened war, saying he'd lead the Army himself and hang the rebels. His most famous quote, "For more than half a century…this Union has stood unshaken. The patriots who formed it have long since descended to the grave; yet still it remains, the proudest monument to their memory." But Taylor's sudden death turned the ensuing crisis over to his Vice-President Millard Fillmore, whose feeble attempt at yet another compromise only delayed the inevitable bloody conflict. Taylor died in Washington, D.C. just 16 months after he took office of either gastroenteritis, cholera or typhoid fever on July 9, 1850. It has been stated that "William Henry Harrison got too cold and died and Zachary Taylor got too hot and died."

Millard Fillmore was the first President born in the 19th century on January 7, 1800 in Locke (now Summerhill), Cayuga County, New York. He was raised in extreme poverty, received little education and studied law. In 1846, he founded the University of Buffalo and was named its first chancellor, a position he held until his death. He became the 13th President after the sudden death of Zachary Taylor. Although he personally opposed slavery, Fillmore supported Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 because he believed it would help preserve the Union. This Compromise allowed California to join the Union as a free state in exchange for Congressional enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act, which helped slaveholders recapture runaway slaves. Abolitionists were outraged, including many Northern Whigs, and their passions were further stirred by the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

One of Fillmore's finest achievements was the expansion of commercial activities in the Pacific with Japan. However, he came under increasing attack from both pro- and anti-slavery factions, and his ineptitude at resolving the slavery issue led to his demise. The Whigs nominated another candidate in 1852. The party eventually disintegrated, ruined by the same forces tearing the nation apart. His nickname was "The American Louis Philippe," an obscure reference to King Louis Philippe of France who was the last king of France (1830-1848). Fillmore was the last Whig to serve as President. His memorable quote was "An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory." In 1856, Fillmore ran unsuccessfully for President on the xenophobic American (nicknamed "Know-Nothing") party ticket. He died in Buffalo on March 8, 1874 of a stroke.

Franklin Pierce was a direct descendant of a Massachusetts Bay Colony settler in the early 1600's. From a distinguished family, he was born on November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Having been the youngest-ever member of the U.S. Senate in 1837, he became the then-youngest President. He earned the nickname "Handsome Frank" because of his charm and good looks. He did serve in the U.S. Army as a brigadier general to fight in the Mexican War. Pierce became the 14th President after winning the 1852 Presidential election against Whig candidate Winfield Scott - a general under whom he served in the Mexican War. The tragic death of Pierce's 11-year-old son in a train wreck darkened his early days as President. National events were no more portentous of a happy tenure in the White House.

Northern opposition forced Pierce to abandon his plans to acquire Hawaii, Alaska and Cuba, although he did manage to buy a large tract from Mexico that is now part of Arizona and New Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) for a Southern railroad. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act superseded the Missouri Compromise which enabled residents in all new territories to determine their own slavery policy. Both pro- and anti-slave factions poured into Kansas which lead to rioting and bloodshed, giving Americans a foretaste of the Civil War. The "Bleeding Kansas" ordeal stained his Presidency and lead to the failure of his re-nomination. His famous quote was "With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined." He died on October 8, 1869 of dropsy related to alcohol, either cirrhosis or congestive heart failure, with gastritis or peptic ulcer disease.

James Buchanan, a career politician, was born on April 23, 1794 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. A lawyer, Congressman, Senator and Secretary of State under Polk, James Buchanan was untainted by the fractious domestic politics of the Franklin Pierce Presidency, thanks to his posting overseas as Pierce's Minister to Britain. Chosen as the Democrat's Presidential candidate in 1856 and becoming the 15th President, Buchanan favored popular sovereignty in the territories but he failed to recognize the impact of slavery on the nation. Nicknamed the "Bachelor President", he attempted to compromise and make political deals on the issues of slavery. Harriet Lane, Buchanan's niece served as first lady and became a popular figure. Buchanan was much less popular, just two days after his inauguration in 1857, the Supreme Court announced the Dred Scott decision allowing slavery in all U.S. territories. This led to further divisions of the North and South, thus increasing the looming possibility of a civil war.

Other than the first Southern state seceding from the Union (South Carolina) toward the end of his term, notable events during his presidency included: the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois, the laying of the Atlantic cable for the first telegraphic communication between Europe and North America, the drilling for oil in Pennsylvania and the start of the Pony Express mail service between Missouri and California. His most memorable quote was, "The ballot box is the surest arbiter of disputes among free men." Though Buchanan called the secession of South Carolina illegal, he took no action to save the Union as he watched the nation wither with the end of his term. He died on June 1, 1868 of a cold complicated by respiratory failure.

As much as he has been distinguished as the worst President in American History, the polar opposite is true about his niece Harriet Lane. As the first non-spousal First Lady, "Our Democratic Queen" was as popular in her time as Jacqueline Kennedy as a First Lady. Women dressed like her, songs were written about her and ships were named after her. Among her most enduring legacies, Harriet dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This renowned pediatric facility continues to serve thousands of children with the widely used manual for pediatric trainees bearing her name, The Harriet Lane Handbook.

Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator" was born on February 12, 1809 in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky to a penniless frontier family. Despite having only one year of formal schooling, he became the most towering figure in American History. He is best remembered as the President who preserved the United States as one country and ended the slavery of African-Americans. Lincoln was a successful lawyer in Illinois and ran for Senate. He lost, but his brilliant campaign oratory secured him the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860 to become the 16th President of the United States. He was the first President born outside the original 13 colonies, the first Republican President and the first President to be assassinated.

Between Lincoln's election and inauguration, seven Southern states seceded. On April 12 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter. Nearly two years later with the Civil War raging, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (slavery was later banned by the 13th Amendment). In November 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, vowing "that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The bloodiest conflict in US history, the Civil War cost more American lives than the two World Wars and Vietnam War combined. Re-elected in 1864, Lincoln lived to see the South surrender on April 9, 1865. Five days later, he was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, before he could fulfill his pledge to "bind up the nation's wounds." He died on April 15, 1865.

Andrew Johnson was born on December 29, 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina. He never attended school but was apprenticed to be a tailor and later achieved modest success with his own tailor shop in Tennessee. Although nearly illiterate until his wife, Eliza McCardle, began tutoring him, he did manage to champion the cause of the common man. He taught himself the rudiments of law and entered politics as a Democrat. The only Southern Senator who remained loyal to the Union when the South seceded, Johnson was chosen by the National Union League (a coalition of Republicans and War Democrats to run with Lincoln in 1864.

When Lincoln was assassinated, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, the "Tennessee Tailor" took the oath to become the 17th President on April 15, 1865. He tried to restore Southern prosperity and pride, but he profoundly lacked Lincoln's genius and hard-won reputation as a man of his word. As a result, Johnson never had a chance. Sharing Lincoln's desire for reconstruction instead of retribution, President Johnson offered amnesty to those who took the oath of allegiance to the Union. Congress had other ideas. He disputed with Congress and in defiance, Johnson fired Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, claiming he was disloyal. This occurred without Senate approval, therefore in 1868 the House initiated impeachment proceedings against him for ousting Stanton, but the Senate fell one vote short of conviction. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the Johnson Administration managed a notable acquisition. Alaska was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million. Following his Presidency, he became the first former President to be elected to the U.S. Senate. He died of a stroke on July 31, 1875 and leaves us with "Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide." Take note, Andrew Johnson remains the only former President to serve in the Senate while John Quincy Adams is the only one to serve in the House of Representatives. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Holman Hamilton, Zachary Taylor, Volume I - Soldier of the Republic and Volume II - Soldier in the White House
  2. Robert J Rayback, Millard Fillmore: The Biography of a President
  3. Roy Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills
  4. Philip Shriver Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography
  5. Milton Stern, Harriet Lane, America's First Lady
  6. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years
  7. Hans L Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography

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