The Making of the Ex-Presidents, 1797-1993: Six Recurrent Models

By Belenky, Irina | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Making of the Ex-Presidents, 1797-1993: Six Recurrent Models


Belenky, Irina, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Historians have long indulged in the exercise of categorizing U.S. presidents into groupings such as "great," "near great," "average," and "failures." Given the expanded profiles now enjoyed by retired chief executives, it is perhaps time to subject ex-presidents to similar scrutiny and classification. To date, there have been forty-two presidents, counting the ever-pesky Grover Cleveland twice. Excluding the incumbents, the eight presidents who died in office, and James Polk and Chester Arthur (who lived too brief a time after leaving office to be considered here), thirty-one presidents remain for our study. Each can appropriately be placed into one of the following six categories: Still Ambitious, Exhausted Volcanoes, Political Dabblers, First Citizens, Embracers of a Cause, and Seekers of Vindication. This article first describes these categories and the ex-presidents included within them. It then concludes with some summary observations and assessments about the ex-presidency.

Still Ambitious

The Still Ambitious ex-presidents are those whose appetites for power remained unsated even after serving in the nation's highest political office. Surely, William Herndon's famous description of his law partner's ambition as "a little engine that knew no rest"(1) applies at least as much to the five ex-presidents in this group as it did to Abraham Lincoln.

Few men have left the presidency with as much unfulfilled ambition as did Martin Van Buren. After suffering defeat in his 1840 reelection bid against William Henry Harrison, Van Buren retired to New York. He longed for a comeback. As the 1844 Democratic Convention approached, Van Buren seemed the near certain nominee. Then, he and his Whig rival Henry Clay issued simultaneous letters opposing the immediate annexation of slaveholding Texas, a ploy to keep this issue out of the upcoming campaign. The maneuver enraged southern Democrats and expansionists, and Van Buren lost the nomination to dark horse candidate Polk. Although Van Buren now claimed he was "sincerely and heartily desirous to wear the honors and enjoyments of private life uninterruptedly to the end,"(2) his ambition resurfaced in 1848, just as the slavery issue was intensifying sectionalist tensions. That year, his opposition to slavery and support of the Wilmot Proviso secured him the presidential nomination of the Free Soil party. Defeated yet again, Van Buren retired for good. He died in July 1862.

After two scandal-ridden terms, Ulysses Grant should have retired from politics in 1877. But he missed the glory and acclaim of the presidency, and in 1880 he allowed his name to go before the Republican Convention. He led on the first thirty-five tallies but ultimately lost the nomination to James Garfield. More misfortune plagued Grant's final years. Bankrupt and diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, he hurriedly completed his memoirs to earn money for his wife. He died in July 1885.

"I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again." So instructed Frances Cleveland to a White House servant as the First Lady and her husband, Grover, left to attend the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison, who had defeated Cleveland in 1888. "We are coming back just four years from today,"(3) Mrs. Cleveland promised. Her husband had won more popular votes than Harrison (but lost in the electoral college), he had been the only Democrat since the Civil War to win the presidency, and no one else of stature was available. Thus, Cleveland's renomination in 1892 was ensured, and this time he won, attaining an unprecedented second, nonconsecutive term.

After winning the presidential election of 1904, Theodore Roosevelt pledged never to "be a candidate for or accept another nomination."(4) Later, he admitted that he would have willingly cut off his right hand not to have uttered that promise. …

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