General Dynamics

The most obvious precedent for retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign is that of Dwight Eisenhower, the only general in the 20th century to seek the highest office in the land. There was a period of time in the 19th century, however, when generals were a common sight on the campaign trail. Between 1840 and 1888, eight of 13 presidential elections were won by former generals, and several losing nominees had similar military backgrounds.

In many ways, the history of 19th-century generals-turned-politicians is not one that Clark supporters should find particularly reassuring. For one thing, most of the politically successful generals of the era spent some time seasoning themselves in lower office before seeking the top job. Benjamin Harrison capped his Civil War record with time as a U.S. senator from Indiana. Both James Garfield and Rutherford Hayes actually resigned their military commissions in the middle of the Civil War in order to run for Congress, and Hayes served three terms as governor of Ohio before winning the presidency. William Henry Harrison's military exploits came about in the course of his duties as governor of Indiana.

Ulysses Grant and Franklin Pierce, meanwhile, did step straight from the military into presidential politics without an interlude in a lower elected office. But Pierce served in the U.S. Senate before entering the military, and Grant had the sort of overwhelming popularity associated with George Washington, Andrew Jackson or, later, Eisenhower.

Beyond questions about electoral viability, however, it's also worth considering that none of these presidents was very good. For the most part, they're simply obscure, credited with few if any accomplishments that are remembered today. The Garfield administration, for example, was dominated by a now-forgotten battle with Sen. Roscoe Conkling (R-N.Y.) over control of patronage jobs at the New York Customs House.

Other presidents of the era are known less for their achievements than for their unorthodox electoral victories. Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland but failed to win the popular vote. In office, he pursued an aggressive foreign policy, seeking to annex Hawaii. Plans for Pacific expansion ran aground, however, when he lost in a second matchup against Cleveland, who canceled the relevant treaty upon assuming office. Hayes not only lost the popular vote but would have lost the electoral vote, too -- except for a bargain made by Republican leaders with white supremacist southern Democrats. Hayes became president in exchange for promising to withdraw federal troops from the South, thus abandoning generations of African Americans to the depredations of Jim Crow.

Zachary Taylor, perhaps the best of the lot, was a slave owner nominated for his ability to appeal to southern voters. But Taylor surprised the country by opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories. Pierce did a good deal worse, signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the famous Missouri Compromise and setting off a miniature civil war in Kansas that he took little effective action to halt.

William Henry Harrison became famous for dying just weeks after taking office and left no real legacy.

The most famous general-turned-president of the era, of course, was Grant, who distinguished himself by having arguably the best record on civil rights of any president until Lyndon Johnson. Still, he failed to solve the underlying problems posed by the conclusion of the Civil War and ran an administration that became infamous for its corruption.

Defenders of the theory that military success is transferable to the arena of civilian government will want to point out that, Abraham Lincoln aside, none of the other presidents of this period did a very good job, either. It was a time of weak presidents, and the weak record in office of the former generals merely reflects the prevailing political climate of the era. Alternatively, one might doubt that the high tide of military figures seeking political office occurring at roughly the nadir of American presidential politics is a coincidence. Perhaps it is only the existence of a weak field of more conventional candidates that creates openings for generals with political ambitions to exploit. Certainly much of the yearning for a Clark candidacy seems to stem less from an enthusiasm for the candidate than from a lack of enthusiasm for the alternatives. History indicates, however, that while generals can triumph over weak electoral opposition, they can't necessarily translate their battlefield successes into political gold. Then again, former Brig. Gen. Franklin Pierce was no Rhodes Scholar.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement