Margaret Kimberley’s new book on US presidents and Black people shows why the executive mansion is called the “White” House.
“U.S. presidents represent in certain ways the worst of U.S. society.”
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.
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.
…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.
Eisenhower (#34) was no hero, generally dragging his feat on civil rights.
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 … 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.