Wanted: a non-U.S. American for President

martin-van-buren.JPGGo read this commentary by William K. Wolfrum over at Shakesville, a smart and spanky group blog.  He makes the fascinating point, long-overlooked by professional killjoys historians, that American-born presidents have been real losers compared to the British born ones.  “You need to go all the way to the eighth President – Martin Van Buren – to have a U.S. president that was born a bona fide American. And what is Van Buren best known for? The Panic of 1837 . . . . If Van Buren showed us anything, it was that true Americans were inept when it came to leading the country.”  (Kind of weird that his nickname was “The Little Magician,” no?  Compare that to “Old Hickory” or “Old Rough and Ready”–it just doesn’t inspire.)  Wolfrum makes exceptions for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the other New York Democrat after Van Buren to be elected President.  As a professional killjoy historian, I’ve got a few quibbles with Wolfrum, natch:  The “no person except a natural born citizen” rule kept us from what would have been the early national nightmare of a President Alexander Hamilton, but we’ve amended the constitution considerably in the intervening 200 years since that would have been an issue.  And, you have to admit that this guy is definitely the second-worst President in American history despite being born in Massachusetts, which contrary to recent rumors, is not and never was a French colony.

When you think about it, considering only U.S.-born Americans for the job limits our options considerably.  We could have a President Jennifer Granholm (born in Canada) one of these days if we did away with that rule, or a President Mary Robinson.  (We also could have a President Kindergarten Cop, though–something to consider, my fellow Americans!) 

On a related note:  HNN is once again asking us professionals to rate and rank George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Guess who beats out that guy in Historiann’s book?  One guess only!)  Anyway, if you want to submit your own answers, have at it.  I think we almost need to adjust the rankings for the newest soon-to-be ex-president to create five or six spaces in between him and the next-worst.  It almost makes me feel a little sorry for this guy–but not really all that sorry.  After all, until January 20, 2009, he’s Number One!

p.s.  Please keep sending me nominations for quality women’s history blogs–read the post below!  And as long as I’m sending hugs and kisses out to Shakesville, read this excellent post by Jeff Fecke on Geraldine Ferraro’s egregious comment that Barack Obama is somehow benefiting (unfairly!) from being a black man.  It’s embarassing, and just dumber than a sack of hammers.  Don’t go all Ralph Nader, Gerry, saying and doing dumb things that undermine your historic achievements and make us hate you in spite of them!  Apologize now!  UPDATE 3/12/08:  Ferraro bows out of the Clinton campaign.  Kind of a whiny letter, but brief!

0 thoughts on “Wanted: a non-U.S. American for President

  1. “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President . . . .”

    Hi Historiann. I don’t mean to quibble, but wouldn’t Hamilton have been eligible for the presidency according to the overly comma-ed passage above? He arrived in New York in 1773, right? He must have been a naturalized citizen of the state of New York, making him a citizen of the new nation in 1788 and thus able [I’m guessing he also would have been willing!] to become president.


  2. bl, this came up recently when people questioned whether or not John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal zone, had an “Alexander Hamilton problem.” Here’s one read that suggests, as you do, that Alexander Hamilton didn’t have an “Alexander Hamilton” problem:”


    Jonathan Turley gives the conventional view, that Hamilton was ineligible to be president:


    And, rootlesscosmo: I dunno, did he? (I don’t disapprove of Van Buren–I was just quoting Wolfrum on him. Although, I do dislike that nickname of his…)


  3. Historiann,

    Why so harsh on John Adams? Granted the Alien and Sedition Laws were a major black eye but he did avert war with France. The peace with France help to torpedo Hamilton and help to split his party which most likely helped Jefferson win the Presidency. I don’t think he was that successful but I wouldn’t put him down in the distinguished ranks of Pierce, Buchanan of Harding.

    I take it you won’t be watching the HBO series on John Adams which starts next week.

    (I should add, for the record, that I am no a professional historian.)


  4. BEW–I don’t know, he just has always rubbed me the wrong way. But, good instincts on the origins of my disgust, which is of course the Alien and Sedition Acts. But, it’s also his revoltingly patronizing treatment of Abigal’s “remember the ladies” letter, his loathsome partisan hackery, his exploitation of war hysteria. Plus, he was short and ugly, paranoid and thin-skinned. He was handed a pretty good situation after Washington left office, and he pretty much drove the country into a ditch in one short term.

    I also hate him for the HBO special–it’s probably fortunate for my readers, because I’d probably watch it (like a car wreck) and Historiann.com would become sweetjesusIhatejohnadams.com. (I wonder if anyone’s registered that domain name? Maybe I should!)

    Just my opinion–there are other worthy candidates for the soon-to-be-number-two slot.


  5. BEW,

    If I had cable I would watch the John Adams series. But, unfortunately, I don’t. I shall eagerly await the DVDs, because I adore the fat, short, cranky bastard.


    I despise the ranking of presidents that historians feel compelled to create. It’s such a pathetic, filiopietistic activity. I am much more interested in the daily activities of working women, men, and children, than the high politics of elites. I shall leave the ranking of presidents to snobs who write books with pretentious titles (for example, The Rise of American Democracy). I, on the other hand, would much rather spend my time reading books that a pompous, chaired historian maligns as “bargain basement Nietzsche and Foucault, admixed with earnest American do-goodism.”


  6. I take this to be a particular type of ranking based on the following question, “Is Little Bush the worst or second worst?” Or can someone make a case for him as third or fourth worst. Surely, the short-lived presidencies can’t compete in terms of damage caused.

    As far as natural-born presidents, be careful where you tread, historiann. As you note, if the laws were changed my beloved governor could well be up for the job. I will report, however, that as a governor he holds his finger up and goes with the wind.


  7. Oh, snap, Ortho! Academic historians only get their moment in the sun every four years, so sue us if we glom onto the “presidential historian” bandwagon! (And wouldn’t you rather hear from Historiann than Michael Bechschloss? She’s much better looking–you’ll have to trust me on that–not to mention a LOT smarter!)


  8. Historiann,

    Now that Ferraro has amped up her comments on race, do you think what she is doing is a deliberate ploy on the part of the Clinton campaign to appeal to white voters in Pennsylvania, and especially white women in Pennsylvania? I find it interesting that the Democratic nomination is becoming a race and gender war. I look forward to more such wars in the future to expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois liberals who claim to be radicals who stand for progress, when in fact they are, like all others in American politics, entitled elites who will say whatever the hell they want if they think it will work to their personal advantage. The Clintons embody this approach to politics more than any others out there that I can think of, though of course everyone has their hand in the cookie jar.


  9. David, you’re right–it’s really ugly. I posted on Ferraro yesterday (see below). I don’t know why she’s digging in like that. Clinton and Clinton’s campaign have openly distanced themselves from her, but they can’t just “fire” her (she doesn’t have a job with the campaign), and they can’t throw her under the bus in the fashion of Samantha Power. (Ferraro did run on a presidential ticket.) I’m sure that it’s not deliberate–in fact, I’m sure they’re furious because Ferraro isn’t going to help them and can only hurt them. Unlike you, I don’t relish the nastiness, and I don’t think Hillary Clinton “embodies” this approach more than any other politician operating in presidential politics! (George W. Bush and Karl Rove, much?)


  10. Thanks, BEW–it’s perhaps an instructive lesson about the power of the internets to take an offhand remark (albeit a stupid and wrong one) in a small-town newspaper in California and blow it up into a major campaign issue.


  11. I don’t understand why you don’t relish the nastiness–it’s clearly one of Clinton’s strongest suits as a campaigner.

    I agree that the first comment was something that got blown up by the media. What interests me is not the first comment, but the second one, which came some time later, after, presumably, the Clinton campaign could have reached out to her and told her to stop it, and this time she went on a national television show and, if anything, upped the ante, repeating her claims even more loudly.

    Why do you think this will hurt the Clinton campaign? I don’t think it will. Reminding voters of Obama’s race, and playing victim to an unfair gender dynamic, plays exactly to Clinton’s core voters: rural white Democrats and women. Since South Carolina the campaign has tried to cast Obama as “the black candidate,” through Bill’s remarks, downplaying the significance of Obama victories in black states, and a variety of other insinuations and comments by surrogates like Ferraro. This seems to fall right in with this strategy.


  12. David, you’re being totally unfair. I know that it’s quite difficult for Obama supporters not to assume that everything that happens isn’t part of some evil, racist plot hatched in Hillary Clinton’s mind, but it’s not. Why the assumption of ill will? I don’t assume that everything dumb that comes out of the mouth of an Obama supporter is part of a nefarious, misogynist plot. Call me an optimist, but I’m of the conviction that most Democrats are anti-racists.

    I understand that you don’t support her for the Democratic nomination, but what has she ever done to provoke this kind of a frenzy, other than campagin against your guy? And if you think she is nasty, then you’d better unplug for the general election, because the Republicans will unleash holy heck on Obama. THAT’s the constituency that will run with the racist and xenophobic attacks, and they’ll do it proudly. Please, go look up some of the ads that Kerry, Edwards, and co. ran against Howard Dean in 2003-04, and then report back here that Hillary Clinton is the ultimate devil of American politics.


  13. No, she’s not the devil. She’s just a very nasty competitor. But you’re right, I’m sure all the Clinton campaign’s comments since South Carolina about black states being states that don’t matter is just coincidence. There’s no way they are trying to use racial fears to their advantage. I mean, it’s not like they are winning overwhelmingly among voters who cite race and/or gender as their number one factor in casting their vote.


  14. David,

    Accusing Hillary of appealing to race doesn’t make make alot of sense politically. According to conventional wisdom, Hillary and Bill, if nothing else, are the consummate politicians; everything they say and do is plan to the nth degree.

    Why would they alienate the African American voters who they will need to win the general election. Are they going to Ferraro remaerks to win white voters in Mississippi? C’mon on. If Hillary was only able to attract 40 or 50% AA voters in the primaries, the race would surely be different. Why would she deliberately offend them? She’s not stupid. Even if they can forego AA votes in the primaries, how can we democrats win in the general election if the AAs sit out this election? Furthermore, all of these so call signals have been out in the open; the MLK LBJ remark, fairy tale, Jesse Jackson, somali dress picture, Ferraro remarks etc. To construe most of remarks as dog whistles is a misnomer; they are dog sirens. They are not subtle at all. The Clintons have almost 24/7 coverage; how can they send out secret signals? The Republicans do this sort of thing back channel so to speak; emails, pushpolls, rumors, etc, everything is done with deniability as witness the MCCains ambush in the S Carolina priamry in 2000. What everybody is complaining is about has been out in the open; there have no reports of these type of backchannel efforts that I know about.

    I don’t think the Clintons are racists. Some of their remarks may have been dumb but alot of it has been blown out of proportion by the media AND the blogs (not Historiann’s, of course, :)) Besides the misogny shown, the accusations of racims against the Clintons is one of the more disgusting things I have seen. That a Republican can make those type of accusation against a Democrat is not a surprise; for a Democrat to make those charges against a fellow Democrat is revolting.


  15. I don’t think the Clintons are racists either, I just think they know what will work.

    Look, the Ferraro thing works well for them. She goes on the airwaves and says these things, they generate a lot of press. Hillary distances herself from the comments, but the message sinks in. The message is not, I believe, fundamentally racist, though it appeals to racist attitudes. It says, “Look, this guy doesn’t deserve to be where he is. If he were just another white guy, would he be here?” This plays well to whites who feel threatened by Affirmative Action, who think that women get passed over too often. This is a core emotion that Clinton has tapped into throughout the campaign, and it works well for her. That’s been proven, I think.

    Clinton already knows that she has lost the AA vote for the primaries. They are hoping that if they somehow win the nomination, they can convince Obama to help them campaign, and bring that back. They are banking on the idea that blacks won’t vote for a Republican. Or, and this is absolutely key, if Obama wins the nomination, this racial rhetoric will help to dampen the support he receives among rural whites, bringing the presidency to McCain, who we’ve now already been told several times is more qualified than Obama to be Commander in Chief. McCain wins, inherits an unpopular war and a bad economy, and Hillary can run again in 2012 (she’ll be 64 then).

    This is not tinfoil hat stuff. This is basic politics. Sure, the pundits are outraged right now about the Ferraro stuff, but the story will die in a few days, it will become something else, and the campaign will go on. If you look at the pattern, the campaign keeps putting this stuff out there, but there is always plausible deniability on the part of the Clinton campaign, and after the thing has run its cycle they denounce it and move on. They do this to dominate the news cycles. This is how they know how to win. It’s not stupid, it’s not far-fetched, it is pure manipulation of the media, which will chase anything, and the blocs of voters that are key to their success, with whom these kinds of messages resonate.

    Ask yourself this basic question: would Hillary and Bill Clinton rather see Barack Obama as president or John McCain? To me, the answer is obvious: McCain. Nothing will look worse for the legacy of the Clintons than an Obama win in November. That’s why they will take this all the way to the convention, tarnish Obama’s image any way they can, and meanwhile bolster McCain’s credentials vis-a-vis Obama.

    If I’m wrong, tell me why.

    Meanwhile, I’ve put up a post on this topic that takes a rather different slant.



  16. To respond to the above, I don’t think that David is suggesting that the Clintons are racist, just very willing to do whatever it takes to win. In some respects, I admire Hillary’s drive. Why should a woman be any less willing than a man to put everything on the line. However, this recent debacle has really been shocking. To not state clearly that she knew Obama is not a Muslim may have been hedging, but to not distance herself from Ferraro was divisive. In today’s world where everything is documented, they should have known that everyone would know that Ferraro’s defense would easily be penetrated. She made those comments on a number of occasions, and she lied to Anne Curry on the nightly news that it only came to light because the Obama campaign trolling the Internet to find something to use against Hillary. They would have had to bury their heads in the sand to let her continue talking without a response. And yes, her “resignation from the campaign that the Clintons claim she is not a part of” letter was brief, but also incendiary in blaming others for what was an inaccurate remark.

    Are the Clintons racist-I think not. Do they stand to benefit from raising the issue, especially after Ohio and Mississippi, where they clearly won the white vote, yes. Should Hillary have done what she demanded of Obama in regards to the Farakhan debate-denounce and reject-yes! Did she, unfortunately, no.

    I apologize for the rant, but I thank Historiann for providing the venue!


  17. Pingback: William K. Wolfrum Chronicles » Blog Archive » What a long, strange 2008 it was

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