Presidents On Presidents


John Adams said Thomas Jefferson’s mind was “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” Ulysses S. Grant said James Garfield did not have “the backbone of an angleworm.” Theodore Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete.” Wilson called Chester Arthur “a nonentity with sidewhiskers.” Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt “No guts!”

It is hardly surprising that Presidents would have strong opinions about their predecessors and successors. Not all of them have expressed their views in public. Some have concealed critical thoughts as a matter of policy: they felt Presidents and former Presidents should avoid public brawls. Others have been awesomely, even recklessly confrontational. But few Presidents have gone quietly into the night without some interesting remarks on the record.

George Washington was an exemplar of presidential reticence. When his successor, John Adams, decided to send an envoy to France to try to resolve the quasi-war raging between the two countries, Washington was appalled. Leading Federalists urged him to speak out against the move, but despite his admission that he found Adams’s decision “incomprehensible,” Washington told Secretary of War James McHenry, “I believe it is better that I should remain mute.” (Had Washington intervened, he would have found himself in the embarrassing position of opposing what turned out to be one of the most brilliant coups in the history of American diplomacy. The envoy astonished everyone by bringing home peace with France.)


This example of reticence was soon honored in the breach. John Adams vented his spleen on Thomas Jefferson for years, combining palpable jealousy with acute criticism. In 1803, seeing disaster in Jefferson’s decision to dismantle the Navy he had created to fight the French, Adams wrote William Cunningham, the son of an old friend, “I shudder at the calamities which I fear his conduct is preparing for his country: from a mean thirst of popularity, an inordinate ambition and a want of sincerity.” Jefferson, for his part, complained that his predecessor was “distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone.”

Nine years later Adams wrote to Jefferson directly to blame him for the impending War of 1812. Jefferson’s lack of a navy had encouraged both the English and the French to treat America with contempt. Jefferson, proving himself a philosopher, ignored these shafts and replied with an essay on the theology of the American Indian.

This long-running postpresidential feud had a touching denouement. In 1823, when both men were very old, the letters Adams had written Cunningham in “sacred confidence” were published in the newspapers by Cunningham’s son. The son, a passionate supporter of Andrew Jackson, was trying to derail John Quincy Adams’s candidacy for President by showing that John Adams had slandered Thomas Jefferson. A horrified John Adams rushed a frantic apology to Jefferson, vowing that the quoted excerpts, were “destitute of [the] truth.”

Jefferson replied that he had paid no attention to the letters. “It would be strange indeed,” he wrote, “if, at our years, we were to go an age back to hunt up imaginary or forgotten facts to disturb the repose of affections so sweetening to the evening of our lives.”

President James K. Polk fixed a steely eye on his new Secretary of State, the future Chief Executive James Buchanan. “Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid,” the President wrote. Andrew Jackson agreed and let Polk know it in an anxious letter. When Polk pointed out that Jackson himself had earlier appointed Buchanan minister to Russia, Jackson replied, “It was as far as I could get him out of my sight. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there!”

Like Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and his successor, Franklin Pierce, are remembered today chiefly for their timidity in handling the slavery issue. But when Civil War finally resulted, neither man was timid about expressing his opinion of Abraham Lincoln. Pierce was particularly vehement; the climax of his opposition came on July 4, 1863. At a five-hour rally in Concord, New Hampshire, he assailed Lincoln, denounced the war as an attack on the Constitution, and ended by virtually urging his fellow Democrats to launch a Northern insurrection.

While Pierce was speaking, the news filtered through the crowd that a great victory had been won at Gettysburg. The speech became a political humiliation from which the former President never recovered.

The Republicans of Buffalo grew to detest Fillmore for his attacks on the President. The story goes that when Lincoln was assassinated, the city fathers ordered every building in the city to display mourning symbols. Fillmore, distracted by his wife’s illness, didn’t hear about the order. He awoke the next morning to find his house smeared with black paint.

Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, started out as friends. In 1901 TR said Taft would make a “glorious candidate and president,” and when, in 1908, Taft got the nomination with Roosevelt’s backing, Teddy told him he would be the “greatest president, bar only Washington and Lincoln.”