'The Presidents War' author Chris DeRose tells how five ex-presidents nagged and cajoled Abraham Lincoln about the Civil War

When the Civil War began, five US ex-presidents were still around, and not a one managed to keep his mouth shut.

'The Presidents' War' is by Chris DeRose.

With some major exceptions (looking at you, Jimmy Carter), ex-presidents generally prefer to be seen and not heard, at least when it comes to making pronouncements about politics. 

Hoover, Truman, and Ford, for example, lived for many years after their terms but didn't devote their time to bossing around their successors. George W. Bush's upcoming book is about his father, not Barack Obama. Even the elder Bush, a force of nature in his post-presidency, avoids making declarations about the state of the nation.

This has been the standard since the beginning, when George Washington stepped down and stepped away. But things changed in the 1860s amid the most devastating crisis in the history of the United States.

When the Civil War began, five ex-presidents are still around, and not a one managed to keep his mouth shut. They pleaded and cajoled, nagged and nattered. In some cases, they scolded Abraham Lincoln. One ex-president even became traitor to the country he once swore to protect.

The ex-presidents were eloquent at times but none displayed anything like the leadership and brilliance of the man in the White House. As historian Chris DeRose reveals in his fascinating new book, the second-guessing of the five ex-presidents exposed their own faults and uncovered the stubborn courage that set Lincoln apart.

In an interview from his home in Arizona, DeRose – author of The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents And The Civil War That Divided Them – talks about ex-president etiquette, a former first lady who insisted on making her own voice heard, and a punchline who deserves more respect.

Q: How did George Washington influence the way presidents lived after their terms were finished?

Washington set the tempo not just for the presidency but for the ex-presidency. What does a president do with his days? How do you address the former president? What is his role?

Washington can't wait to get back to his farm and retire out of the public eye. It is a precedent that's largely followed, and to such an extreme that former presidents felt constrained to not visit Washington, D.C. after the presidency.

Q: The ex-presidents all have their own visions about how they'd have avoided the Civil War. What did they say they would have done?

They view the president as conciliator-in-chief, that the president's job is to hold things together, sit on the lid, make concessions for the Southern institutions. It was always about keeping the country together.

All of the ex-presidents supported a negotiated settlement with the South. Four out of the five supported adopting a compromise, although John Tyler really wanted something more like terms of surrender for the North.

Q: How did they contrast to Lincoln?

Lincoln saw his job to be true to the principles on which he was elected, to be honest to the Constitution come what may. He represented a complete transformation of the presidency from conciliator-in-chief to leader of the country.

Q: Of these five ex-presidents – James Buchanan, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore – who's the least supportive of the North?

John Tyler is the biggest antagonist, working to remove Virginia from the Union and even using Confederate troops to try to take the capital after the Battle of Bull Run. He died an enemy of the country.

Q: Tyler's wife, Julia, is a fascinating figure in her own right. What did she do that was unusual for a first lady of that time?

She's just 24 when she she marries a 54-year-old president and embraces her role as a Southern belle despite being a New Yorker. She's a fascinating character, a Northerner who wholeheartedly adopted the idea of slavery and is eloquently outspoken but completely wrong on various issues of the day.

At one point, she writes a widely published defense of slavery in response to aristocratic women of Britain who wrote to the the women of the South and urged them to use their influence over their husbands to stop slavery.

Julia Tyler writes this full-throated rebuttal that basically says that our slaves live better than your poor workers in Britain, and don't get me started on the Irish.

Q: Besides the traitorous John Tyler, who else comes across poorly among the ex-presidents?

While Franklin Pierce is a Northerner from New Hampshire, he's willing to blame the entire Civil War on the idea of eliminating slavery. He has no qualms about slavery whatsoever. He's basically a white supremacist who raises all these fears of a biracial country, where blacks will descend on our women and children.

Q: Millard Fillmore, an accidental president whom hardly anyone remembers, comes across as perhaps the wisest of the ex-presidents, even though he's not a supporter of using the Civil War as a tool to end slavery. What can we learn about him?

He's a punchline in history, the quintessential forgotten president. But if it weren't for him, the country would have looked a lot different.

He was willing to end his political career for what he thought were the best interests of the country and he was able to avoid a civil war. He may be the person we should look back to with great reverence because he kept the country together.

Q: What can we learn from all this in our own divided political era?

When the republic was really in trouble in the Civil War, we produced our greatest statesman. In moments of crisis and peril, America has always been able to find the right leader and negotiate its way forward.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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