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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Been there and done that, a LONG time ago

Anyone who recognizes this picture and can identify the person in it before they read this post deserves a prize.

This post is slightly off topic, as in it doesn't directly deal with Israel. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is one of my college classmates (for the record, another is David M. ("Dave") Friedman, the 'Israel adviser' to Donald Trump). Rabbi Pruzansky is the rabbi of a shul in Teaneck, New Jersey where many of my friends consider him to be a 'controversial' figure.

About a week ago, I told someone somewhere in social media that this election in the US reminds me of the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election. I was a little too young to vote, but I can recall arguing with my parents that they should vote for Nixon because 'he may be a crook, but at least he's our crook.' Nixon was gone two years later, but I certainly have no regrets for having supported him.

Rabbi Pruzansky is a historian and compares this election to a much older one of which I was not aware. He compares it to the election of 1856. The picture at the top is the guy who lost that election.
Imagine for a moment a US presidential election between two candidates, neither of whom is particularly beloved to the populace. One candidate is an undistinguished former Senator and lackluster Secretary of State who had few if any accomplishments in office but is breaking a social barrier by running for the presidency, and the other is a wealthy businessman with dictatorial tendencies and a populist streak and inspires devotion in his followers and fear and loathing in his adversaries. Even members of his own extended family support his opponent. Imagine also that exactly four years after one of these individuals is elected – after four years in office of abject failure, with simmering problems and no solutions – that utter catastrophe befalls the nation.
We need not let our imagination run that wild because such was the fateful election of 1856 that pitted James Buchanan against John C. Fremont. Buchanan, a Democrat, had served without distinction in the House and Senate, and as Secretary of State under President Polk. His sole qualification for the presidency, aside from the boxes checked off on his resume, was that immediately before the election season he was serving as American ambassador in Great Britain and so was removed from the disputes then raging over slavery. He remains the only lifelong bachelor ever to serve as president, shattering once and for all that important impediment to high office.
His opponent was the colorful Republican John C. Fremont, whose long locks flowed over his ears and whose beard gave him a dashing appearance. Fremont was a wealthy businessman who gained his fortune in an unorthodox way. He was by profession an explorer, one of many Americans to go west in the 1840’s blazing new trails and expanding America’s horizons. He ventured as far as California, and when the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, Fremont was awarded a commission as a Lt.-Colonel, won several battles in California (including in the area of Santa Barbara) and almost immediately declared himself the military governor of California.
That did not sit well with his superiors. Fremont was eventually court-martialed and convicted but had his sentence commuted by President Polk. Back in California, Fremont found his fortune when his Mexican workers discovered enormous quantities of gold on land Fremont claimed as his own. He parlayed that gold into the purchase and development of extensive real estate holdings, especially around San Francisco, and into a career in politics, briefly as Senator from California and then the run for President as the first candidate ever of the newly-minted Republican Party.
There was a third-party candidate as well in this election. Former president Millard Fillmore ran on the ticket of the self-proclaimed “American Party,” nicknamed the “Know-Nothings.” They were a party with a single cause – opposition to immigration; at that time, the disfavored immigrants were Catholics from Europe. There is no truth to the rumor that Fillmore promised to build a wall along the Eastern seaboard to prevent Catholic immigration and have the Vatican pay for it. In any event, American society today is much more efficient, so Fillmore’s party has been subsumed by one of our two parties.
All things considered, Fremont was the superior candidate and despite his intriguing resume would have made a better president, but who knows? Buchanan the Democrat was pro-slavery in an understated way, and as a northerner (the only president ever to be born in Pennsylvania), it was assumed he would attract some Northern votes along with those of the Southern pro-slavery crowd. Fremont the Republican was anti-slavery, as were most Republicans of that era, and that moral stance forced his own father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, to oppose Fremont and support Buchanan.
Democrats accused Fremont of being unfit for the presidency and claimed that he would surely provoke a civil war. In the end , of course, it was Buchanan who won and whose failures as president made the Civil War, the bloodiest in American history, inevitable.
The election was closer than it seemed.  Buchanan won 45% of the vote to Fremont’s 33%, but the anti-immigrant Fillmore earned a startling 22% of the vote as the third-party candidate. Absent Fillmore’s involvement and siphoning of votes from the other two candidates, Fremont might have won and American history might not have taken the dark turn it did. Fremont carried most of the north, but even lost his own state of California; Buchanan swept the slave south and his home state of Pennsylvania (then, the second largest state after New York). Fillmore won Maryland and that’s all, and soon faded into obscurity.
Buchanan as President, despite his gaudy resume, allowed the fight over slavery to escalate. He supported the Dred Scott decision wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories and basically allowed this moral and civil problem to fester. It festered into the outbreak of the Civil War a month after Buchanan left office and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in. Such is the price for failed leadership in a time of crisis and for stale ideas when new thinking is required.
Fremont fought in the Civil War for the Union, later moved to New York, died in 1890, and is buried in Sparkill, New York in Rockland County, just a few miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Is past prologue?
Continue reading here.  By the way, there is a city along the California coast not far from San Francisco named Fremont, California. Yes, named after the same John C. Fremont (although you have to go his Wikipedia page to confirm that).

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At 11:32 AM, Blogger Mardukhai said...

Fremont is actually very well known in California. There are streets and high schools named after him everywhere. He was, however an infamous flake. A very expensive television movie was made of his life perhaps twenty years ago.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On another hand, an Abolitionist in the White House in '57 might have driven Southern sentiment toward secession sooner, and how would Fremont have measured up to the challenge?

Skipping far ahead, Lincoln's greatest contribution to America was insisting upon a gentle peace. (See Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, Doubleday 1953 ed., pg. 338 & thereabouts: Lincoln's conference at City Point with Grant and Sherman.) By the end of all that bloodshed, would populist/opportunist Fremont have had that kind of vision?


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