I suppose you have to actually be convicted of a felony to be a felon, but I also think we should make an exception for U.S. presidents. Take the current one, for example. Donald Trump just murdered Iranian and Iraqi military officials at an airport in Baghdad. His staff later “briefed” Congress members on why these murders were “legal.” Congress members denounced the briefing as utter nonsense, and yet labeled the murders “a strike of choice.” People who have been convicted of murder, and who are properly called felons, never had the option of getting their crimes labeled “strikes of choice.”
Noam Chomsky famously said that, by the standards of the post-World War II trials, all of the post-World War II U.S. presidents would be hung. Of course, I don’t want anyone hung or killed in any manner or assaulted in any way, ever. But it’s not exactly disputable that presidents launch and facilitate wars and invasions and coups and assassinations and all variety of murders, and always have. We can dispute which forms of murder were legal on which dates. But it’s hard to escape the understanding that U.S. presidents, when examined closely, represent in certain ways the worst of U.S. society, and always have.
Margaret Kimberley examines U.S. presidents on the question of their treatment of African-Americans (plus a few tangents into their treatment of Native Americans) in her new book, Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents. Her focus is very rightly on the policies presidents imposed on the country, but also on what their personal actions and statements were throughout their lives. After all, these people, especially the longer they have been dead, are held up to us as model human beings.
Kimberley gives us 45 chapters, one on each president, making the book a very handy resource. After reading it, I felt compelled to flip back through and do a little math, to try to convey the consistent patterns of horrible behavior. I noticed not only that a large number of presidents enslaved other human beings, but that an even larger number had parents and families that did so (though Ulysses Grant was a first-generation slave owner in his family), that an enormous number favored shipping African-Americans to Africa, that segregation was very popular among presidents once that era had begun, and that racist attitudes and racist policies were ubiquitous in the presidential catalogue.
It’s hard to put numbers on everything without a great deal of additional research, but Kimberley documents many things for us, including how 10 of the first 12 presidents enslaved other human beings. The two exceptions are white supremacist John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams, who in fact appears to have owned people as slaves.
Making a list or a mathematical calculation is easily (and eagerly) misinterpreted, of course. What I hope the 10 (or 11) out of 12 figure conveys is the dominance of slavery among the wealthy and political elite of the early United States, and not the idiotic and incoherent idea that each person on the list is the exact moral equivalent of each other person on the list each of whom is pure evil and never did anything good in their lives.
Washington, D.C., is named for the wealthiest enslaver of his day, and located in the swamp it’s in because powerful slave-owners wanted it there and wanted to be able to bring slaves there. George Washington, or Conotocaurious (his Iroquois name meaning Town Destroyer), was the first of every president up through Lincoln who supported the continuation of slavery. Kimberley notes that “[a] great irony exists in the fact that Washington is now the ‘blackest’ surname in the United States. Ninety percent of the Washingtons in America are black people.”
John Adams favored the forced removal of black people from the United States. At the time of the war of 1812, Adams denounced the British for not leaving the “stolen Negroes” (men who had escaped slavery to fight on the British side) to starve, or shipping them to Africa, but rather giving them a colony in Nova Scotia — just as the British had done with those who had escaped at the time of the revolution, including at least one man who had been enslaved by George Washington.
John Quincy Adams was the most anti-slavery president and former president the United States has had, but was no abolitionist. How much credit you should give people who obtain powerful positions and act relatively better, as compared with people who act far better but don’t obtain power, is open to discussion, but I look a bit more favorably on JQA than Kimberley does. She denounces his support for compensated emancipation or for ending slavery by freeing all those born after a certain date, and follows a quote by him in this regard by crediting him with rightly predicting war — despite no such prediction being contained in the quote.
Needless to say, it’s a disgusting notion that one should compensate the enslaver and purchase someone’s freedom, rather than compensating the person who has been enslaved while punishing the person who has enslaved them. Needless to say, it is a repulsive idea that anyone should remain in slavery an instant longer. And here’s another hideous idea that was actually tried: you murder three-quarters of a million people, destroy towns and cities, create bitter, seemingly eternal resentment, and fail to fully end slavery, sending black people in states like Alabama to work in underground mines for de facto owners who could now place zero value on black lives and behave accordingly.
The fact is that U.S. slave owners refused to allow freedom to be purchased. But it is also a fact that much of the world ended slavery and serfdom with compensated emancipation and without war. When John Quincy Adams said he would not support freeing slaves without “the consent of their masters,” his motivations may perhaps have been despicable, but he was proposing a rational solution that was supported by a great many well-meaning abolitionists — and one that succeeded in many places, including within the boundaries of Washington D.C.
On June 20, 2013, the Atlantic published an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “No, Lincoln Could Not Have ‘Bought the Slaves’.” Why not? Well, the slave owners didn’t want to sell. That’s perfectly true. They didn’t, not at all. But the Atlantic also focuses on another argument, namely that it would have just been too expensive, costing as much as $3 billion (in 1860s money). Yet, if you had read closely—it was easy to miss it—the author admitted that the war cost over twice that much.
Nobody foresees what a war will cost at its start, but given that every war in history, as far as I know, has been confidently predicted to cost dramatically less than it ended up costing, and given that wars today never end, we could start considering their costs to lie in a range between enormous and infinite. We could also start distinguishing just causes from wars they are tied to. If we decide today to end mass incarceration, no matter what we think of the U.S. Civil War — no matter if we glorify or are indifferent or hold a mixture of feelings about it — we can all agree that it would be idiotic to pick out some fields, kill millions of young people, and then pass a bill ending mass incarceration, rather than simply passing the bill and being done with it.
Kimberley’s portraits of presidents are complex. There are familiar hypocrites like Jefferson who expressed both fine and awful sentiments while pretty consistently engaging in awful behavior politically and personally. There are others like William Henry Harrison who owned people as slaves his whole life and is said to have fathered six children with an enslaved woman, and who expressed both fine and awful sentiments while pretty consistently engaging in awful behavior politically and personally, but whose story may be less familiar than Jefferson’s.
Presidents numbers 13, 14, and 15 were Northerners who did not own anyone but fully supported the practice of doing so. Fillmore supported and signed the Fugitive Slave Act. He also supported forcibly sending all blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Pierce wrote to his friend Jefferson Davis in 1860 expressing his support for slavery. Buchanan, as president elect, urged Supreme Court Justices to rule in the Dred Scott case in the manner that they did, namely denying rights to African Americans, and attempting to block legal means of ending slavery.
President #16, the Great Emancipator, was openly racist, supported forced colonization, blamed black people’s presence for the war (and told them that directly), and fought a war for years before self-emancipating blacks and slagging northern support for war led him to declare the cause to be freedom. Kimberley also denounces Lincoln for proposing compensated emancipation, though how that could have been worse than continuing the war she doesn’t explain.
With Andrew Johnson (#17) it was right back to a president who had owned slaves, as had #18 Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson did so much to deny freedom to black people that Congress impeached him (though the ground for impeachment was the firing of the Secretary of War). Grant oversaw and tolerated a rise in racism, segregation, and terrorism. Rutherford B. Hayes (#19) was actually selected (not elected) as part of a deal to end Reconstruction.
There followed numerous racist, pro-colonization, and pro-white presidents. One of the nastiest was that hero of popular culture, Teddy Roosevelt. Another was that beta version of Barack Obama, Woodrow Wilson, a horribly racist, oligarchic, warmonger, raised by parents who had owned slaves, who has gone down in history as a liberal spreader of democracy.
Then came three racist Republican opponents of black rights, each chronicled by Kimberley.
Franklin Roosevelt (#32) rejected a proposal to consider the case of a black man accused of murder in Virginia, by telling the U.S. Attorney General, “I warned you not to call me again about any of Eleanor’s niggers. Call me one more time and you are fired.” FDR successfully advocated for legislation like the Social Security Act that excluded agriculture and domestic work and therefore most black people.
Harry Truman (#33) was openly racist and had been a member of the KKK, but was moved by public pressure to take steps such as desegregating the military. Former president Truman in 1960 remarked that if civil rights advocates staged a sit-in in a store he owned, he’d throw them out. Kimberley discusses a trend in her accounts of numerous presidents, of liberals and black people giving enormous credit to presidents for occasional crumbs tossed their way. She quotes Truman’s special assistant on civil rights recounting a large crowd praying prior to a speech by Truman. “They thought it was a religious occasion.”
Eisenhower (#34) was no hero, generally dragging his feat on civil rights. But taking action (even if it was with the National Guard) to protect students integrating a school seems like a positive thing, whereas Kimberley writes that he only did so because the Governor of Arkansas refused to allow black students to attend the school. Why else would he possibly have done so? One good act, of course, does not outweigh numerous bad ones.
A pattern of giving Democratic presidents dramatically too much credit is well documented through the remaining presidents in the list. LBJ did what activists compelled him to do (though he gave up his career rather than do what peace activists sought to compel him to do). Nixon re-normalized racism and promoted numerous harmful policies, including one that Kimberley might have added to her account: the “war” on drugs. Ford opposed busing, refused to send troops as Eisenhower had, and backed segregated private schools.
Jimmy Carter campaigned for president, saying, “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained. I would not force racial integration of a neighborhood by government action.” Ronald Reagan pursued the re-legalization of segregation. Bill Clinton made sure more black people went to prison and fewer received welfare benefits. Barack Obama’s policies hurt black people, but his blackness gave him protection from any public activism.
Should anyone be added to this rogues’ gallery in the future? Well, no person should ever be given the sort of beyond-royal power that U.S. presidents are given. That Trump has been impeached, even for a bizarre and warmongering reason while dozens of critical reasons stare us in the face, is a good thing in the same way that the U.S. media finally calling an acting president a liar and a scoundrel (except when he’s bombing people) is a good thing. The office of the presidency needs to be brought down to size. It seems destined to hold in the future the worst representatives of U.S. society that can be found.
Yet, we also have to try to fill that office, as long as it exists, with the least awful person we can manage. It must be noted that one of the leading candidates in the polls for this year’s election is a far-from-perfect individual (aren’t we all?) who nonetheless stands head and shoulders above the entire crowd of 45 thus far (no matter what kind of hat Lincoln wears). I mean, of course, Bernie Sanders. If he were elected, as a president with the updated and developed domestic policies of FDR, but without the lust for another World War, and without the bigotry that has dominated the White House for centuries, would he scale back presidential power? Would we want him to? Would he pursue what he promised to pursue? Would he succeed? Let’s find out.