Josiah Marks

Portrait of Josiah Marks

15th President of the United States
March 4, 1873-March 4, 1881

Predecessor Peter Bryce
Successor Samuel J. Tilden

9th Governor of Florida
January 2, 1871-January 2, 1873

7th Governor of Florida

5th Governor of Florida

Born November 11, 1823
Spouse Mary Marks
Political Party Democratic Party
Profession Lawyer

Josiah Robert Marks (November 11, 1829 - March 7, 1907) was the 15th President of the United States of America, serving between 1873-1881. He was known as the "Great Negotiator" due to his pushing of Southern states to adopt a more gradual approach to disabling slavery in the wake of the Compromise of 1868. He was regarded as one of the keenest politicians of his day and is often cited among Democrats, especially Southern Democrats, as one of the first great leaders of their party.

Besides the Presidency, Marks was one of the most notable members of the Marks political family from the South, serving on three occasions as the Governor of Florida from 1859-61, 1865-69, and 1871-73. He was also a professional lawyer, served as a judge in Florida on three separate occasions, including a stint on the state's Supreme Court, and later in life was the United States Ambassador to Colombia.

Marks is often cited as the "First Great Southerner," "the Compassionate Emancipator," or "the First Liberal." Many modern Democrats shy away from celebrating Marks, as his plan to disable slavery was built largely on guarantees to Southern elites that the new economic system would be designed on a more efficient model of exploitation than before. Still, he is often granted the same credit as George Adams and Horatio Seymour in avoiding a civil war, and for his intelligent and cautioned approach to foreign policy.

Early Life

Josiah Marks was born in Jefferson City, Cuba in 1829 to George Marks (1798-1870), who would serve as the Governor of Cuba from 1831-1849. He was the third of seven children; Abraham (1823-1894), Rachael (1826-1854), Elijah (1832-1899), Jebediah "Jeb" (1835-1885), Ruth (1836-1873) and Delilah (1837-1881).

The Marks children grew up in Cuba during a period in which the white slaveowners from the Southern United States were arriving in Cuba by the thousands each year and there was serious strife with the Spanish-speaking locals, who had a powerful, entrenched gentry that had largely been left alone during the time of Cuba's occupation by the US prior to statehood. Many Cubans had wanted independence as opposed to statehood and were furious over the seizuire of control of their state by whites that resulted in the acceptance to the United States in 1826.

Unlike Puerto Rico and Florida, where the native Spanish-speakers had largely been marginalized, George Marks, or "Don Jorge" as he was called, battled during his eighteen consecutive years as governor to integrate the Spanish into the culture. The Spanish themselves owned slaves and Marks and all his children became masterful practitioners of the language.

In 1852, Josiah Marks graduated from the Havana School of Law and subsequently moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where he began a law practice with his cousin, Thomas J. Finley, who was also from Cuba. The Marks-Finley law firm was buffeted by the growth of the state during the 1850's and their agreement to represent freedmen in suits - the black population of St. Augustine was growing exponentially with a slew of freedmen flocking to Florida from other, more draconian slave states. Josiah's eldest brother Abraham soon joined their firm in 1856 and Marks was selected by Florida Governor John Michael Holmes to be the state's Attorney General, largely thanks to name recognition. In 1858, after two years as the attorney general, Marks was appointed by the state legislature to succeed Holmes as Governor, at only the age of 29.

Governor of Florida


Election of 1872

In 1872, incumbent President Peter Bryce declined to run for office, leading to a groundswell of debate over who should be his replacement in the National Party's pro-military camp and the Nationalist anti-military camp. Meanwhile, the Southern-based Democrats rallied around Josiah Marks, who was initially reluctant to run but eventually acquised and allowed his name be submitted at the 1872 convention on the second ballot. He selected John C. Addison, a powerful New Jersey Senator and former Lutheran minister, to be his running mate.

The Nationalists eventually had an insurgency from within their own party, declining to nominate popular New York politician Samuel Tilden in favor of career soldier James Arthur Stennis, who had never held elected office and who ran an extremely lackluster campaign. Marks defeated Stennis resoundly, carrying 90% of the popular vote in the South and capturing a bevy of traditional Nationalist strongholds, including Indiana, Ohio and Huron, as well as trouncing the Stennis-Cox ticket in battleground states such as New York, New Jersey and Aroostook.

Domestic Policy and "Southern Abolition"

The election of a Southern politician, especially by such a wide margin, suggested that the critical issue entering the 1870's would be the implementation of the deconstruction of slavery agreed upon in the controversial Compromise of 1868 as well as the expanding role of military officers in the United States government. Marks was notably anti-military, having never served in the army and believing that the alarming growth of the army since the early 1860's, and especially since the Military Act of 1871, would lead to a military coup. Marks' role as the first Southern President since the shortlived tenure of Zachary Taylor led him to be called the "Hero of the South" and much attention was afforded towards how he would move forward, especially with Nationalists in control of Congress.

Marks disappointed a number of powerful Southerners when he announced that he had no intentions of working to repeal the Compromise of 1868, which he knew was a political impossibility with the powerful National Party in control of government. He also, however, ended whispers of a possible Southern secession, and he began working in secret on a plan for what he was terming "Southern Abolition."

In the north, however, the abolitionist frenzy had grown to such a fury that the election of a Southerner, especially one who still admitedly owned slaves, was seen as unacceptable. Abolitionist John Brown began a campaign called "Free America or No America," and encouraged his supporters to assassinate Marks. In fact, gunmen opened fire on Marks' carriage when he visited Philadelphia in 1873 and only a month thereafter, a team of assassins were fought off by Marks' personal bodyguards at a hotel he was staying at in Albany. A number of abolitionist politicians gathered in Yorktown, Huron in January of 1874 to discuss a potential secession of northern states to form a new country. As Yorktown Convention leader James Ramsay put it, "Let them have their slaves, and let us have none of them!" It appeared, barely a year into Marks' Presidency, that the secession crisis was brewing again for the complete opposite reasons.

Marks, who had discussed with influential General Abraham Lincoln and several top Southern officers a law that would curtail the powers of the military and end the "armed state of violence" Marks feared the current climate had created, realized that he was caught in an unenviable position. He could either cut the Northern-dominated military in half, as he had promised in his campaign, and leave the country susceptible to civil war and potentially an invasion from Canada, or he could expand the military and make a show of force, as President Stephen Douglas had done a decade prior during the Secession Crisis, in return for reneging on his goals and expanding the military's powers.

Marks reluctantly opted for the second option and passed the Executive Order of 1874, making Lincoln the General-in-Chief of the United States Army and adding 75,000 soldiers to the United States Army. The Yorktown Convention's plans fizzled and sputtered shortly thereafter, especially after the prominent Northern officers they needed support from boycotted their measures. Marks travelled to Boston that summer to give a stirring address later known as the Marks Doctrine, in which he outlined many of the ideals of the United States and how they would be implemented in the deconstruction of slavery.

In fact, Southern Abolition was a very delicate process that Marks himself had to cut a number of deals with Southern Governors who despised the federal government to implement. Many of his plans involved a tacit support of plans to maintain "anti-colored laws" in the South that applied to freedmen throughout the country, and Marks had unofficial agreements with a bevy of Southern leaders, both Democratic and Nationalist, to veto any legislation passed through Congress that would combat laws designed to assist freedmen. In turn, Marks also sought out many of the Nationlists who opposed him at his election and negotiated a structured plan to abolish slavery through the states, not through the federal government, arguing that it was and always would be a matter of the right of the state. He signed a letter that he circulated to every Nationalist member of Congress in 1875 vowing to respect the Compromise of 1868 and to help them abolish the institution, if they in turn agreed to a policy of "zero interference" with freedmen in the South. Marks famously told Nationalist Senator Charles Wright, "I'll give you your abolition if you give me my freedmen."

Although the policies Marks knowingly turned a blind eye to would cause a system of segregation and racial tension throughout the South until the 1940's and 1950's, and racial disparity into the 1980's, he was one of the few Southerners to adapt a pragmatic approach to the dying institution of slavery and tear it apart with a means acceptable to the entrenched Southern gentry.

Concerning the issue of slavery, one of the most legendary speeches in American history was given by Marks in the Boston Address, also known as the Marks Doctrine, in 1874:

"We live in a nation such as has never existed on Earth before - a nation that, from tyranny, birthed liberty. That from oppression, birthed freedom. That from injustice, birthed equality. That is the core principle of our nation. The ideal is that we are One Nation, Under God. The thought was that Out of Many, we could become One. The right of the state cannot be infringed upon - and the integrity of the Union, it must be preserved! A house divided cannot stand, and the end to this debate must come now. The writing is on the wall, and the institution of slavery as it exists will end, and it shall end, but by peaceful means, by legal means, by natural means, not violence or division."

Foreign Policy

Election of 1876

Second Term

Later Life and Legacy

After leaving office in March 1881, Marks was almost immediately offered a position on the Florida Supreme Court, a vacancy held open by the Governor, Timothy Powe, so that Marks could fill it. Marks readily accepted and sat on the Court for four years. When James Blaine became President in 1885, in the height of the Alaskan War, he called Marks to Washington to serve as his advisor in the conflict, and Marks resigned his position on the Supreme Court. Marks remained in Washington until 1890 as an advisor to Blaine in foreign and domestic matters, and was said to have referred to his time in Washington as "a quasi-Presidency; the influence President Blaine afforded me felt to me like a third term in office."

In 1890, Marks became a judge in St. Augustine upon his return to Florida and lectured on the law around the state. He disliked being called, "President Marks," and instead preferred to style of "Your Honor." He explained in his diary in 1893 that, "I have not been President for well over a decade now. It was a position I served with honor for eight years but I fail to appreciate the reasoning why I cannot now be a judge instead." In 1894, he was offered the position of Ambassador to Colombia by President John Rockefeller, and Marks begrudgingly accepted. Marks was a noted critic of Rockefeller's within the party, and never attended a Democratic caucus, convention or party event after he felt that Rockefeller and his "radical agitators" hijacked the party in the 1892 aligning election. For this reason, in his later life, he was called "Josiah the Pariah" thanks to his intentional disassociation with the party, despite being one of the party's elder statesmen. Marks retired permanently from Colombia in 1897 and returned to Florida to write poetry and books on the law.

In 1905, he gave his last known public address in Havana to the graduating class of the University of Havana, and he retired to the Marks family estate shortly thereafter. In 1907, he passed away in his sleep and was buried at the Marks family plantation in Marksville, Cuba.

Josiah Marks' legacy remains somewhat muddled. On the one hand, he is often credited with helping avoid a civil war in that he presented the gradual abolition to Southerners in terms that they found acceptable. For this reason, and for his commitment to the individual right of the state and his opposition to the military culture of the 1870's, he is regarded as one of the finest politicians ever produced by a Southern state. In the North, his legacy is somewhat blackened by his institution of policies that would subjugate blacks for several generations, although in recent years, historians have appreciated his impossible position in the heated political climate of the 1870's. Josiah Marks himself wrote in his diary in 1881, "I hope history judges me more kindly than my peers."

The Presidential retreat in the mountains of Virginia is named Camp Marks in honor of Josiah Marks in 1940 by President Alf Landon, who felt that the name was more appropriate than Shangri-La because "President Marks represented what every President is subjected to; a balance unpopularity and love, tough decisions, good intentions, and public scrutiny." Marks consistently rates in the Top 10 in surveys of the greatest Presidents of all time due to his political savvy and ability to avoid a civil war and end slavery through peaceful means.