George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

President #1, C-SPAN historians ranking #2

You Never Forget Your First Time

georgewashingtonThe face of George Washington is well known to Americans. He stares at us on dollar bills. His profile is on the quarter. His portrait used to be a fixture in school classrooms. The capital city of the nation is named for him.

And, just like all of us, George Washington was just one person. One person, full of the typical needs and wants, features and defects, highs and lows, just like anyone else. He was the first true hero of the United States of America. But, why him? What made George Washington, Virginia plantation owner, into GEORGE WASHINGTON, American icon?

Historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, both of Williams College, try to cut through the mystique that often clouds our judgment of George Washington. Their book is not revisionist by any means. But, it is a way for people to get a better grasp on just who the first President of the United State truly was.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732; although, at the time, he thought his birthday was February 11. The British had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, so they were 11 days behind. (This would be the case until 1752.  Although, it would be fun if we celebrated Washington’s birthday one day before Lincoln’s.)

Washington didn’t attend any university; but, he did receive training in surveying. He also received a commission to serve in the Virginia militia. The two jobs would end up setting Washington on his path to fame.

One of Washington’s first major jobs as a surveyor was to map the parts of Virginia near the Ohio border in 1753. This put Washington into close contact with the French, who controlled that part of North America.

In 1754, France and Britain went to war in North America over the control of the territory of what was then called “The Northwest.” Washington served alongside British generals during this conflict, known as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years War in Europe. (The war lasted nine years in North America, so it needed a different name.)

Washington was attached to British General Edward Braddock, who led his troops into an ambush at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock was killed; but, Washington was able to rally the remaining troops. For his efforts, Washington was sent to accompany General John Forbes in an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.

There was no battle at Fort Duquesne, though. The French abandoned the fort in the face of the overwhelming size of the British forces. Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt, and later Pittsburgh. Forbes ended up with a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh named after him.

For all of his service, Washington hoped that the British Army would give him a commission. But, no commission would be awarded. Washington took this as a tremendous slight. Washington was keenly aware of the importance of titles and status. He realized that the British Army would never consider a colonial like him worthy of honor.

Washington did receive a generous grant of property for his service, and he was able to parlay that into great personal wealth. And with this wealth, Washington did become one of the most famous and most important people in Virginia. Washington would serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Although not as radical as other members of that body, such as Patrick Henry, Washington did join others in calling for a boycott of imported goods from Britain.

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Washington was part of Virginia’s delegation. Washington dressed in his military uniform for all the meetings. And when the American Revolution began the following year, the Congress decided to appoint Washington as the head of the Continental Army. Presumably, this was because he already had a uniform.

Washington agreed to serve without pay, asking only to be reimbursed for expenses. During the Revolution, Washington became, in the words of Burns and Dunn, a transactional leader. Washington had to take care of forming an army, keeping it equipped and fed, making sure people all over the colonies (soon to be states) were happy. It was almost a triumph of management, more than military expertise.

After eight long years, Washington and the Americans won their independence from Britain in 1783 (although hostilities had ended in 1781 after the Battle of Yorktown.) Washington addressed his officers in what was known as his Farewell Address. It would turn out that Washington’s public life was far from over.

The United States, under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, was almost ungovernable. The Congress had very little authority. States tried levying tariffs on goods imported from other states.

Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays led a popular uprising against the government of Massachusetts. Shays’ wanted the state to stop property seizures by creditors against farmers. Although the violence was relatively muted, the concept behind Shays’ Rebellion stirred Washington to take action to change the American government.

The action turned out to the Constitutional Convention. Washington did not directly call for it, but encouraged others to do so. And Washington also welcomed an invitation to participate in it. And Washington had little trouble in accepting the job as the president of the convention.

Washington’s job at the Constitutional Convention was not to come up with new ideas. The heavy lifting, from an intellectual standpoint, was left to people such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. But, it was Washington’s air of authority (he wore his military uniform during much of the convention to help with this) that kept the delegates in line.

After the Constitution was ratified, there was little doubt who would be the man chosen to be the first President. It had to be Washington. He won every electoral vote in 1789.

Washington had one of the most difficult jobs as President because nobody knew just what the President was supposed to do.  Washington had no example to go by. He had to find out how to make it all work. And he had to do it right away.

During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, many thought that Congress would end up as the most powerful branch of government. But, Washington was able to shape the office of President into a more powerful force.

Burns and Dunn point out two main ways Washington accomplished this. First, Washington, thanks to the efforts of Hamilton, made the President a proactive force in making legislation. Washington did not want to sit back to wait for Congress to propose action. Most notably, Hamilton sent to Congress plans to consolidate state debts into one national debt, as well as a plan to set up a national bank. Washington fully supported these policies.

The second area where Washington asserted the authority of the President was in foreign affairs. After Washington negotiated a treaty with several Indian tribes early in his Presidency, he went to the Senate to discuss the treaty with its members. But, the initial meeting was a disaster as the senators were not prepared to ask questions and Washington was asked to come back later. Washington had no desire to ever repeat that experience. Since then, all presidents have negotiated treaties and then just presented the completed document for the Senate to vote on. Washington also knew that since the President had the right to receive and appoint ministers and ambassadors, the President had the right to recognize nations.

Washington relied heavily on Hamilton and Jefferson for advice and counsel. The two men were given a great deal of latitude to make decisions. But, it was Hamilton who ended up being Washington’s favorite adviser.

Hamilton, who during the Constitutional Convention proposed an executive who would be elected for life, saw great promise in the United States. Hamilton felt that a strong Chief Executive was needed for this. Washington was of the same mind. The favoritism that Washington gave to Hamilton would ultimately to the rise of the two-party system in the United States.

Burns and Dunn point to a 1791 article anonymously written by Madison as the beginning of factionalism in U.S. government. At this time, Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of state debts by the Federal government was before Congress. Madison opposed this because he felt it was outside the scope of Congress’ powers according to the Constitution. Also, Madison felt that the plan was unfair to many Revolutionary War veterans who had sold off their debt certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value. Hamilton’s plan had all of the certificates redeemed at full value.

Although most in government knew that Madison had written the piece, Washington and Hamilton believed that Jefferson was the man behind the whole idea. Jefferson also believed that his views were being ignored by Washington.  So, he resigned his position as Secretary of State in 1793.

In addition to domestic differences, the American political system also split along the lines of France and England. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the United States was left in the position of having to choose whether to honor its Revolutionary War alliance with France, or, try to remain neutral and avoid the wrath of England.

Jefferson and his supporters backed France. Hamilton and his supporters sided with England. Washington opted for a policy of neutrality, knowing that the United States could not afford a war with any European power.

However, the English were not going to allow American ships to trade with their French enemies. The Royal Navy began to seize American merchant ships and choke off trade. Washington opted to try diplomacy to get the English to relent in their attacks.

So, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a treaty. Jay didn’t have much to bargain with. When he returned, the treaty didn’t have much in the way of concessions from the British. There were no provisions to relieve the pressure on American shipping; but, the British did agree to abandon their forts along the Canadian border.

Jay’s Treaty (as it would be called) was sent to the Senate in 1795, where it was debated in secret. (The Senate conducted almost all of its business behind closed doors in the early years of the Republic.) The Senate voted to ratify the treaty.

It did not take long for details of the treaty to emerge. Public reaction to it was harsh. Mobs burned effigies of Jay throughout the country. (Jay said he could ride up and down the country at night using the lights from his burning effigies.) Hamilton was shouted down at a public meeting trying to defend the treaty. Washington was stunned by the reaction. It was the first time that Washington faced an enormous amount of opposition from the American public. (Washington had been reelected in 1792 unanimously.)

Washington was not sure if he would sign the treaty; but, the decision was made for him in the summer of 1795. At that time, Washington was given a letter written by his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, to the French minister to the United States. Randolph seemed to indicate that he felt that the treaty was favorable to England, instead of France. Also, Randolph, somewhat obliquely, solicited a bribe from the French to prevent the treaty from going into force. Washington would not tolerate such disloyalty from his Secretary of State. Randolph was fired, and the treaty was signed by Washington.

Toward the end of his second term in 1796, Washington was a tired man. He complained of vision and hearing problems, and, even worse, memory lapses. He had worked nearly all of his adult life to the creation of a new nation that he was extraordinarily proud of. But, Washington knew it was time to retire from public life for good. Washington’s example of serving two terms would be followed by all presidents until Franklin Roosevelt. (The 22nd Amendment made the two terms limit a requirement instead of an example.) Washington delivered a second Farewell Address.

In this address, Washington bemoaned the partisanship that had taken over American politics. He also famously warned against the United States from entering into any alliances that would force the country to become needlessly involved in European matters. This philosophy would guide American foreign policy for most of the 19th Century.

In 1797, after the inauguration of John Adams as the second President, Washington returned to his home at Mount Vernon. Burns and Dunn portray the retired Washington as one who had come to accept partisanship in government. When Washington was asked to lead the Army by Adams in a possible war against France, Washington insisted that all his officers be Federalists (as the supporters of Adams and Hamilton had become known.) Washington also worried that the United States was in danger of being taken over by the Illuminati. (Someone had traveled through time and given Washington the collected works of Dan Brown.)

Washington passed away on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Henry Lee, in a eulogy for Washington, described him as being “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington, the man, was dead. George Washington, the myth, lives on to this day.

Other stuff: Normally, this section is reserved for listing places that are memorials dedicated to the President reviewed. However, I don’t have enough space or energy to list all of the homes, monuments, and memorials dedicated to George Washington.

Washington’s Mount Vernon home is not a national park or monument. It is run by a private foundation called the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Foundation. The Washington Monument is not considered to be a National Monument by the United States Park Service. It is a National Memorial. Construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848; but, it was not completed until 1884. There were problems with raising money for the monument. Also, there was this thing called the Civil War….

For those not wishing to travel to Virginia or the District of Columbia, you can just visit the state of Washington. I hear it’s pretty much the same as our nation’s capital.

Washington had no children with his wife Martha. However, Martha did have two children by her first husband.

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Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

President #12, C-SPAN Historians ranking #29

He’s Tanned, Rough, and Ready

ztaylorWhat can be said about a man who was President for just 16 months? What can be said about a President who never held any other political office in his life? What can be said about a man who likely never voted in his life until he was elected President? What can be said about a man who almost went directly from battlefield success to the White House?

As it turns out, not much. John S. D. Eisenhower, son of another general turned President, tries to give us a look at the life of the third man to parlay military success (after Washington and Jackson) into the Presidency. Unfortunately, Taylor’s term in office was brief, most of his papers were destroyed in the Civil War, and his greatest accomplishments occurred in a war that happened before mass communications (in the form of the telegraph) had taken hold.

Eisenhower did not get the most interesting President to write about, but he tries his best. The book works best if you are interested in military history, or the particular ins and outs of battlefield strategy. But at the end of the book, Taylor remains something of a cipher.

This is not to say that the life of Zachary Taylor is not worth examining. His military career spanned the two wars that the U.S. fought in after the Revolution and before the Civil War: The War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Taylor was also the father-in-law, albeit briefly, of Jefferson Davis.

Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia, but that was only because his mother was too far along in her pregnancy to accompany her husband, Richard, to his new property (a reward for his Revolutionary War service) in Kentucky, in what would become Louisville.

Although young Zachary Taylor received little formal education, he was able to read and write acceptably. In 1808, Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and became a soldier, getting a commission as a first lieutenant.

But in 1809, Taylor’s military career almost ended because of one of the most colossal errors committed by an American commander in peacetime. Taylor had been transfered to New Orleans, where James Wilkinson, a brigadier general, was in command. The oppressive heat of New Orleans was making most under his command ill.

The Secretary of War ordered Wilkinson to move his troops north to Natchez, where conditions were more favorable. But, Wilkinson moved the force south to a spot called Terre Aux Bouefs. This place was even hotter and more humid than New Orleans. And there was even less food. The soldiers began to die by the score.

Finally, Wilkinson (who had likely moved the soldiers south because there was money in it for him) decided to move whatever soldiers were left to Natchez. And nearly all of the remaining soldiers perished on that trip. What of Zachary Taylor? He was fortunate in that he got sick almost as soon as he arrived and he was sent back home to Louisville to recover.

(During his Army career, Wilkinson also served as a spy for Spain,  was a co-conspirator with Aaron Burr to commit treason, had numerous mistresses, and took countless bribes. Yet, he was never successfully court martialed.)

During the War of 1812, Taylor fought in the West. He made a name for himself when he successfully defended Fort Harrison (in present day Indiana near Terre Haute) from an assault by an allied force of Indians. Taylor was made a brevet major for his actions. However, Taylor saw little action after Fort Harrison as most of the fighting in the War of 1812 occurred near the U.S.-Canada border. Taylor asked to be transferred to that theater, but he stayed in the West.

When the War of 1812 ended though, the Army was reduced in size and Taylor was demoted back down to captain. Taylor took this as a sign to leave the Army, and he did. He went back to Louisville to work on his plantation, which proved to be a very lucrative endeavor for him.

But, the Army would keep calling Taylor back. Taylor always answered the call, serving in various frontier posts. In 1820, Taylor moved his family with him to Louisiana. Tragically, he saw two of his young children die of malaria there in a span of four months.

By 1832, Taylor had worked his way up in the military to the rank of  lieutenant colonel. At this time, the U.S. engaged in a rather pointless and bloody affair called the Black Hawk War. Black Hawk was the name of a Sauk Indian chief who tried to halt the gradual takeover of his people’s land in Illinois by white Americans. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln would fight in this war, which was really more of a chase by the Army to catch Black Hawk. After a few months, Black Hawk was captured and all but 50 of his men were killed, either by the Army or by the Sioux.

Davis, a lieutenant serving under Taylor, had grown fond of his commander’s daughter Sarah. However, Taylor refused to let his daughter marry an Army officer. The two ended up courting in secret, and eventually wed in 1835, by which time Davis had resigned his commission. However, Sarah Taylor died soon after her marriage of malaria.

While fighting against Seminoles in Florida, Taylor earned his nickname of “Old Rough and Ready” because he would always be out on the battlefield with his troops. Taylor drove his troops hard, but no harder than he would drive himself. Because of his actions in Florida, Taylor had become Brigadier General Zachary Taylor.

Taylor would later find himself commanding troops at Fort Jesup near what is the border today between Louisiana and Texas. In 1845, Taylor was ordered by President James Polk to move his troops to a point south of the Nueces River in what was then the village of Corpus Christi, Texas.

The point of this maneuver was for the U.S. to tell Mexico just where they believed the border between Texas and Mexico was. According to Mexico, the border was on the north side of the Nueces. But Polk wanted to establish a U.S. presence south of the Nueces, and, if possible, as far south as the Rio Grande. (The river has been expanded into a bay in recent times.)

At first, Polk attempted to negotiate a settlement with Mexico, but the Mexicans would not sell the U.S. the disputed territory. So, Taylor’s troops marched further south to the Rio Grande, right across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. On April 26, 1846, Mexican soldiers fired at and killed some of Taylor’s men. The news was sent back to Washington. And by May 13, Congress had declared war on Mexico.

Taylor spent much of the war along the U.S.-Mexico border. After capturing Monterrey, Taylor hoped that the U.S. government would just follow a strategy of waiting around for Mexico to surrender. But Mexico wouldn’t surrender. Eventually, Polk, on the advice of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, ordered General Winfield Scott (who was already a declared candidate for President in 1848) to lead an amphibious assault on the port of Veracruz, with the eventual takeover of Mexico City.

However, such an invasion required Taylor to give up some of his best soldiers to Scott. While the attack on Veracruz was successful for the U.S., Mexican president Santa Anna decided that his last best hope was to attack what was left of Taylor’s forces, which were now in a place called Buena Vista.

The Battle of Buena Vista (fought in February of 1847 near the city of Saltillo, Mexico), saw over 670 American officers killed and an estimated 1,500 volunteer soldiers desert. But, the Americans won as the Mexican Army was spent after a long march through the Mexican Desert. The war was essentially over. The U.S. added most of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Taylor ended up being the hero of the war for the Americans. His plain dress (he rarely wore a full uniform) and easy manner endeared him to his men. Although the Mexican War proved to be unpopular as it was being fought, the American people still wanted a hero.

In 1848, there would be an election. Polk had promised to serve only one term, so the race was wide open. It’s not clear when Taylor became interested in running for President. He had made few political statements during his military career.

Taylor wanted to be drafted to become President. He didn’t want to have to run for office. It’s also quite possible that he had no idea how to run for office. No one knew which party Taylor belonged to.

The Whig Party, seeing a chance to win the White House, sent a delegation to Louisiana to get Taylor to declare himself a Whig. After that, Taylor was able to win the nomination in June of 1848. At the time, parties sent letters to the nominees informing them of the selection. Taylor did not respond for an entire month. However, Taylor was not hesitant to run. Instead, the local postmaster had refused to deliver the letter to Taylor because it had insufficient postage and Taylor had left instructions that he would not pay postage due. Eventually, a second letter was sent and Taylor began his race for the White House. Millard Fillmore, the state comptroller for New York, was given the Vice Presidential nomination.

The Democrats would nominate another soldier, Lewis Cass. Cass however had also served in the government both as a Cabinet member and a Senator.

Taylor did not campaign much. He hoped that his personal popularity and a general dissatisfaction with the Democrats (who had been in power almost since Jefferson’s election) would carry the day. Taylor was right. He won 47.3% of the popular vote, besting Cass and third party candidate Martin Van Buren. The Electoral Vote tally was 163-127.

General Taylor was now President Taylor. En route to Washington, he was on a steamship that carried Whig Party leader (and political rival) Henry Clay. When Taylor came up to Clay to pay his respects, the Kentucky senator brushed him off, not knowing who he was. Clay tried to apologize, but Taylor just moved on.

Outgoing President Polk feared that a political novice like Taylor would be easily swayed by Congressional Whigs. Polk also worried that Taylor was not committed to adding the newly won territory from Mexico as states. (Polk would have bigger problems as he died four months after leaving office.)

Taylor immediately faced the problem that the new territories would be a political landmine because of the issue of slavery. Southern Slave interests demanded that any free state be admitted with a slave state to preserve a balance in the Senate. But Taylor’s party, the Whigs (at least the Northerners), were backing something called the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any of the new territories.

Soon after Taylor took office, California (it’s the big state on the left) was telling Washington that it was ready for statehood. California, despite having numerous Southerners work on its first Constitution, was going to prohibit slavery. So, there was a demand to find another state suitable to add as a slave state.

However, nearly all of the territory taken from Mexico was unsuitable for slavery. New Mexico and Arizona and Utah were not well suited for Southern-style plantations.

Congress was ready to come up with a carefully crafted compromise that would take care of the situation. California would be admitted as a free state, a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law would be adopted, other territories would vote on whether or not to be free or slave states, and the public slave trade in the District of Columbia would be stopped.

Clay wished to put all these measures into one big bill, called the Omnibus Act. It had little chance of passing as there were too many controversial ideas in one piece of legislation. Also, Taylor had indicated he would veto the bill.

The paradox of Taylor was, despite owning slaves and profiting greatly from their labor, that he had no desire to spread slavery into any new territory in the United States. Why this is so is unclear, according to Eisenhower.

The Omnibus Act was debated through the spring of 1850, but no final vote was taken in Congress before it adjourned for the summer. Taylor stayed in Washington for the Independence Day celebrations.

During the numerous functions Taylor attended, he gulped down fresh fruits and cold milk. This turned out to give the President a bad case of gastroenteritis. And then there were complications from the heat in Washington. Taylor caught a fever and died on July 9, 1850. Fillmore became President. In the fall, the Omnibus Act was separated into smaller bills and was passed and became known as the Compromise of 1850.

Some historians believe that the Compromise of 1850 paved the way for the Civil War. Others believe it served to delay the inevitable war between the free and slave states. Another group of historians believe that if Taylor had vetoed the Compromise of 1850, he could have used his personal popularity as a war hero, and a Southerner, to work out some amicable solution that would have prevented the Civil War.

The last theory is hard for me (and Eisenhower) to believe. Zachary Taylor may have been popular, but his popularity was no match for the enmity brewing in the United States over slavery. Taylor had not shown any ability to work with the political leaders of his own party to accomplish much of anything.

It almost seemed that Taylor just sort of stumbled his way into the White House because it seemed like the thing to do. Much of his own papers were destroyed during the Civil War. Taylor was the stereotypical old soldier who did  just fade away.

Other stuff: If you are looking for Zachary Taylor memorials in the U.S., you don’t have a big selection. Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, which is part of the US Veterans Affairs, is the site of Taylor’s grave. Taylor’s wife, Margaret, is buried there as well. The cemetery is closed to further interments. It is located in Louisville.

The only major international agreement signed during Taylor’s Administration was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (Taylor signed it three days before he died.) The treaty prohibited the U.S. or Great Britain from building a canal through Central America unilaterally. Theodore Roosevelt had to work around that. It wasn’t that hard.

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Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg

President #30, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #26

The chief business of this blog is business

coolidgeCalvin Coolidge assumed the Presidency in 1923 as something of a cipher. But, by the time he left office in 1929, he was one of the most popular men in America. And, very quickly, that popularity vanished with the onset of the Great Depression. Just who was this taciturn man from New England?

David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor and a columnist for Slate.com, does an excellent job of putting the life and times of Calvin Coolidge into perspective. Greenberg doesn’t spare Coolidge from some blame for the Great Depression.  He does  provide a motive for Coolidge’s policies, however. Also, Greenberg delves into the public persona of one of the first Presidents who mastered the public relations game, and was able to capitalize on a new medium that was going to transform politics: radio.

Calvin Coolidge came into this world on July 4, 1872 as John Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father was a farmer and store owner, and like many people in small towns, held a variety of elected offices. Calvin (who dropped John as a teenager) lost his mother in 1885 to tuberculosis that was complicated by injuries suffered in a horseback accident. His only sibling, a sister named Abigail, died five years later from appendicitis.

Without his mother around, Calvin became a shy and somewhat withdrawn child. His father sent him to a boarding school, where Coolidge had a hard time making friends at first.  Slowly, he came out of his shell and became a leader at his school. Speech and debate proved to be his specialties.

Coolidge would go on to study at Amherst. There he would meet two lifelong friends, and political allies, Dwight Morrow and Harlan Stone. After graduating Amherst, Coolidge studied law as an apprentice in Northampton, Massachusetts. And in 1898, Coolidge won a seat on the Northampton city council, kicking off a career in politics.

For a man who appeared to be very quiet and withdrawn, it would seem unlikely that Coolidge could propel himself into the highest office in the country. But, as Greenberg demonstrates, Coolidge was extraordinarily shrewd in grabbing opportunities to move up the political ladder, as well as presenting himself as a man who could be a leader.

By 1911, Coolidge had been elected to the Massachusetts State Senate. And in 1913, Coolidge became the President of the State Senate. From this position, Coolidge positioned himself with key Republican leaders in Massachusetts, some of whom would be key financiers in his campaigns for higher office.

In 1915, Coolidge was elected to his first of three one-year terms as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. And in 1918, Coolidge reached what many thought would be the highest position a man like him could hope to obtain, governor of Massachusetts.

Coolidge’s term as governor was marked by reducing government spending and streamlining the bureaucracy of Massachusetts. But, Coolidge might have faded into obscurity if the police officers of Boston had not gone on strike in 1919.

This strike was no ordinary strike. Nearly the entire force walked off the job, leaving the streets of Boston open for roving gangs of thieves and looters.

At first Coolidge didn’t want to intervene, preferring Boston’s mayor to handle the situation. After two days of rioting, in which three people were killed, Coolidge fired the striking officers and sent off a telegram to Samuel Gompers, who was negotiating for the police men, that read, in part, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

Coolidge made sure the newspapers saw this telegram. And the public lauded Coolidge for his tough stance on the strike, and his visibility on the national stage increased. The Republicans put him on the ticket in 1920 as Vice President with Warren Harding.

Once Coolidge assumed the Vice Presidency, Harding had little use for him. Coolidge was rarely consulted on policy, and Coolidge spent much of his time trying to keep busy.

Being shut out of Harding’s scandal-ridden White House turned out to be a good thing for Coolidge. When Harding passed away in August of 1923, Coolidge was able to assume the Presidency without any of the baggage from the numerous scandals that were about to come to light.

No one was sure what to make of the new President. Some thought he would be a lightweight compared to Harding (and Harding was about as lightweight as Presidents come). But, Coolidge surprised people with his quiet and seemingly honest and forthright style.

Coolidge quickly appeared everywhere in the press. He held press conferences twice a week for nearly his entire Administration. He would appear in a photo with just about anyone. And he would wear anything photographers asked. (This link is to a particularly rare one.) He was the ideal man for that moment in history.

And what was happening during this time in America? Foremost, the country was prosperous. Wages were increasing. Productivity was up. People could buy and spend freely it seemed. The U.S. economy, bolstered by booming industries in automobiles and radios, looked to be in great shape.

Coolidge, advised by Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon, proposed a hefty tax cut, eliminating many surtaxes on the highest income brackets. These had been put in place to help the economy during World War I. But in peacetime, Coolidge and Mellon though that stimulating the economy with tax cuts would ultimately help out all income levels.

Congressional opposition kept Coolidge from getting all that he wanted in the tax bill, but there was enough left to satisfy him. And, according to Greenberg, left America with an economic model that would be adopted 57 years down the road by Ronald Reagan.

In 1924, Coolidge decided to run for President in his own right. This might have been a daunting task. No Vice President, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who had assumed the Presidency after a death had been elected in his own right. And Coolidge was no Teddy Roosevelt.

But, Coolidge was no political innocent. His three principal opponents on the Republican side all were removed in expert ways.

Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot, one of Roosevelt’s last disciples to hold a high office, was asked by Coolidge to help mediate a strike among coal miners in his state, but he had to follow White House directions, effectively taking Pinchot out of the race.

Henry Ford was another rival.  Coolidge offered to sell Ford the Federal hydroelectric plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  After this, Ford decided against running against Coolidge. (The move was later blocked in Congress.)

The third Republican opponent was Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette, a Progressive. La Follette’s Progressive movement was shut out of decision making at the White House, and Coolidge’s people controlled the party regulars, who were needed to have any chance of gaining the nomination. La Follette would run as a third party candidate.

The Democrats provided even less opposition to Coolidge than his own party. With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the nation, the Democrats found themselves being identified as the party of the Klan because of their strength in the South. The Democrats took 103 ballots and 10 days before coming up with a nominee in 1924, as the party split over support for the Klan. It was a New York lawyer (although born in West Virginia) named John W. Davis who got the nomination.

Bruce Barton, a public relations man who worked in the White House and deftly crafted Coolidge’s image, had celebrities, such as Al Jolson, campaign for the President. (In 1924, Hollywood and Broadway were dominated by Republicans.) Coolidge also used the radio to deliver speeches, which allowed him to reach a much wider audience than ever before. Greenberg estimated that the crowds of people who showed up for Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches were about 13 million people. Coolidge could reach more than that with just one radio address. (You can listen to some of Coolidge’s speeches here.)

Coolidge, like Harding in 1920, won the election in a landslide. The Democrats won only in the states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma. Coolidge won 54.4% of the vote and Davis won only 28.8% of the popular vote, the lowest percentage for a Democratic nominee ever. Third party candidate La Follette won 16% of the vote and carried his home state of Wisconsin.

In his full term in office, Coolidge continued his pro-business policies. It was in January 1925 when Coolidge issued his famous statement “The principal business of America is business.”  Greenberg also points out that Coolidge followed up that statement with “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

This means that either: 1) Coolidge truly had a pro-business agenda, 2) Coolidge’s idealism was about business’s ability to improve the nation, 3) Coolidge was just trying to sound smart or profound, 4) it was all an act. It was likely all four.

Coolidge’s election energized the stock markets. Millions of people who had never invested before turned to the stock market with the hope of quick riches. Real estate prices soared in some markets, especially in Florida. Few people believed that there would be any end in sight to this prosperity.

While the economy soared, America was faced with numerous internal conflicts. Women, now with the right to vote, were starting to assert their independence and sexuality during this time. Civil rights remained an issue that had to be confronted. American literature, music, and art were all undergoing rapid changes.

And what was Coolidge’s response to all this? Not much. He just kept quiet (an image he cultivated) and tried to present the image that he was taking care of things. He wanted Americans to believe that their president was a simple guy. He liked to go back to his farm to work. (Be sure to dress appropriately!)

Over in Europe, the situation was not as rosy. Nearly every European country had built up huge debts that they owed to the United States. Germany was also trying to pay off reparations as well. Germany ended up facing a hyperinflation scare where, at one time, one U.S. dollar was worth 4.2 TRILLION marks.

Coolidge, while trying to maintain an isolationist stance, did encourage some international agreements that were supposed to alleviate the debt problem, as well as reduce the chance of another world war. But, not much more was produced other than toothless agreements such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was supposed to prohibit the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Its effectiveness proved to be limited, to put it kindly.

Although Coolidge did not wish to get involved in European matters, he had a different view toward Latin America. Coolidge and Morrow had to work hard behind the scenes to prop up the Mexican government of Alvaro Obregon. When Obregon was replaced by Plutarco Elias Calles in 1923, more problems followed, as Calles moved to nationalize businesses and the holdings of the Catholic Church.

Then in 1926, Coolidge ran into a problem in Nicaragua when he withdrew Marines who had been supporting the government there. With the Marines gone, civil war broke out in Nicaragua. And Coolidge had to send the Marines back.

Coolidge’s friend, Dwight Morrow, was able to negotiate a solution to the problem in Mexico. However, the problems of Nicaragua would be a thorn in the side of American presidents for the next 60 years.

In 1928, when Coolidge addressed the Pan-American Congress in Havana, he spoke of the region’s shared goals. But, Coolidge found few friends.  The Pan-American Congress almost adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. for intervening in the affairs of other countries in the region. At the last minute, American delegate Charles Evans Hughes was able to get the resolutuion withdrawn.

In August of 1927, Coolidge famously announced his intention not to run for a second full term in 1928 by handing reporters small slips of paper that read, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” Coolidge had felt that he had done enough as President and had little to gain by running for another term. Also, Coolidge had still never recovered psychologically from the death of his son, Calvin Jr., in 1924 from an infected blister.

And so, Coolidge departed the White House in March of 1929. His Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, took over. And, as most of us know, the stock markets crashed a few months after Hoover was sworn in. And soon after that, the Great Depression began.

The economic hard times made people look back at Coolidge and wonder if he was responsible for the calamity.

Greenberg gives Coolidge a mixed report card. He feels that Coolidge didn’t act to put any controls on the stock market or banking systems because he felt it wasn’t the Federal government’s role. No one had done so before, and it would be especially unlike Coolidge to have taken the lead in this field. But, Coolidge had to have known that the rise in the price of stocks couldn’t be sustained.  Greenberg writes that Coolidge’s tax cutting policies encouraged speculation in corporate stocks, instead of bonds, further inflating their prices, and screwing up (this is a technical term used by economists!) credit markets. (Since corporate taxes were lower, corporations paid out larger dividends.)

According to Greenberg, the difficult in assessing Coolidge is that he is evaluated by people who knew what the problems with the U.S. economy were. But, few people from 1923 through 1928 foresaw those problems. (Some people did, but no one who was in a policy making position did.)  Coolidge ran the country according to a political philosophy that got him from a job as a city councilman in Northampton, Massachusetts, all the way to the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would make Coolidge’s laissez faire policies seem almost quaint. But, they would be revived in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. And another Republican who knew how to manipulate his public image and get his programs through Congress would return to the White House.

When Coolidge passed away in January of 1933, he was already an afterthought to some. Dorothy Parker, upon being told that Coolidge had passed away, remarked, “How could they tell?”

Other stuff: Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace in Plymouth is an historic site operated by the State of Vermont. The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum is in Northampton, Massachusetts. It is not operated by the National Archives, but rather by the Forbes Library, which is a public library established by Judge Charles E. Forbes in 1894.

Coolidge’s Vice President, Charles Dawes, began his term with a speech excoriating the Senate for having obsolete rules. Early in 1925, Coolidge faced a contentious nomination for his Attorney General candidate, Charles Warren. It appeared that the Senate was going to tie 40-40 on the nomination (ties don’t go to the nominee). Dawes, as President of the Senate, could have cast the deciding vote in favor of Sargent. However, when the vote came up, Dawes was taking a nap back at his hotel. The Senate voted without him present and rejected the nomination. Coolidge rarely spoke to Dawes again after that.

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Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff

President #22 and #24, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #21

I’m only telling you this once!

clevelandOften just regarded as a numerical oddity, Grover Cleveland served eight years as President during one of the most turbulent times in American history. America was still recovering from the Civil War. The nation was beset with violent labor strife. The economy  teetered on the brink of collapse. European powers were stretching out their empires and there was pressure for the U.S. to join in the fun.

And the man in the middle of much of this change was Grover Cleveland, a man who had vaulted from being mayor of Buffalo in 1881 to the White House in 1885. And is the story of this man an inspirational one for all of us?

From reading Henry F. Graff’s slim (only 138 pages if you don’t count the notes or index) book about Cleveland, the answer is no. Graff, a former professor at Columbia, tries his best to make us believe that Grover Cleveland had some special attributes that made him an especially great president. But, for the most part, Graff writes about a man who moved up the political ladder, mostly because he appeared to be more honest than most politicians of the era. This is a very low standard considering the state of American politics at the time.

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped Stephen when he was young) was born in Caldwell, New Jersey in 1837, but spent most of his formative years in upstate New York. In 1854, after his father’s death, Cleveland decided it was time to go off and start a career. He was going to go to Cleveland, Ohio (my law career has been stymied by having no city named Timmermann) to study law as an apprentice to another lawyer. However, Cleveland ended up going to Buffalo to study after an uncle there gave him some financial help.

Cleveland was set up with a position in Buffalo’s most prestigious firm: Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. The firm was famous because former president Millard Fillmore used to be a partner in it. And to this day, it is the only law firm to produce two presidents.

After passing the bar, Cleveland worked as an assistant district attorney for Erie County, but lost an election for the D.A. job. During the Civil War, Cleveland hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army (which was perfectly legal and above board at the time).

In 1870, Cleveland won his first race when he was elected sheriff of Erie County. Cleveland presided over two executions, throwing open the trap door for two different men who were hanged. At the end of his term, Cleveland started a successful private law practice.

In 1881, Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo. And one year later, New York Democrats, soured by scandals among Tammany Hall Democrats in New York City, nominated Cleveland to run for governor. And Cleveland won that race.

Suddenly, Cleveland was placed in one of the most high profile state government jobs in the nation. It made him a contender for the White House in 1884.

However, it didn’t take much to be a Presidential contender in 1884. American politics was not producing its finer candidates at the time. Cleveland’s opponents at the Democratic convention were Thomas Bayard, Allen Thurman, and Benjamin Butler. Cleveland won on the second ballot.

The 1884 election would be fought on many topics. None of them were particularly germane to the problems of the country, however.

The Republican nominee was former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine. The Republicans still liked to use the Civil War as a campaign issue (it was known as “waving the bloody shirt”). This time out, they were thwarted in an attempt to capitalize on that issue. First, Blaine, like Cleveland, had not served in the Civil War. Second, Civil War veterans were starting to age and die off and no longer as powerful as a voting bloc for the Republicans. A spike in immigration added new voters with no memory of the Civil War.

The Republicans did turn up a potential problem for Cleveland. Namely, Cleveland was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child, and then taking that child from his mother. Cleveland was prepared for this issue, and had told Democratic party officials about it. When asked for advice about what to do, Cleveland famously replied, “Tell the truth.”

And in this case, honesty was the best policy. The child was likely not Cleveland’s, but the offspring of a married friend of his, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland, as a bachelor, let his name be used as the father to avoid scandal. Cleveland also had provided for the child’s upbringing, and also made sure that the child was adopted into a good home. (The mother likely suffered from mental illness or an addiciton.)

The Democrats countered the Republicans bastard charges by accusing Blaine of corruption for receiving kickbacks from an Arkansas railroad in 1876 in exchange for political favors. There were incriminating letters to back this up, one of which was marked “Burn this letter.” The Democrats would derisively chant that phrase during any Republican rally.

Finally, a few days before the election, Blaine was being introduced at a rally in New York by a Presbyterian minister who described the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine quickly tried to dissociate himself from the comments, but it was too late. The large number of Irish voters in New York were incensed, and they swung in favor of Cleveland.

Cleveland carried New York by a little over 1,000 votes. He won nationwide by 32,000 votes, with a healthy lead in the Electoral College, 219 to 182.

Cleveland was the first Democrat to assume the Presidency since the Civil War (if you count Andrew Johnson as a Republican, which he sort of was.) There were going to be changes.

However, the Democrats expected Cleveland to engage in wide scale firings of Republicans in government jobs. But Cleveland eased up a bit, angering many supporters who were hoping to have favors cashed in. Cleveland, following the lead of Presidents Hayes and Arthur, tried to continue to reform the Federal Civil Service, although such reforms were hard to get through a Congress used to dealing in political patronage mixed with a dash of corruption and a pinch of graft.

Cleveland angered veterans groups by vetoing numerous pension bills, many of which were pushed through Congress as political favors for men who did little or no fighting during the Civil War. Cleveland also ordered the Army to return all captured Confederate battle flags (to whom is unclear to me.)

In May of 1886, a bomb thrown into the crowd at a labor rally in the Haymarket section of Chicago killed seven police officers. This event would presage other violence surrounding attempts by workers to organize for the next 50 years.

Although he was a bachelor when he entered the White House, Cleveland wouldn’t remain one for long. He had developed a fondness for the daughter of his friend Oscar Folsom. This young woman was born with the name Frank, which she changed to Frances, because life is hard for a girl named Frank. Cleveland had known this woman since birth. He bought Frank  her first crib.  When she was 21, Cleveland married Frank. And in the White House no less.

Perhaps today if there were a 49-year old bachelor president marrying a 21-year old woman that he had known since she was an infant, people might be a bit put off. But in 1886, this wasn’t considered that unusual. And the Clevelands went on to have a long and happy marriage that produced five children. Cleveland would always call his wife Frank also.

Toward the end of his first term, Cleveland pushed for a lower tariff. He felt that the system in place was hampering trade (tariffs tend to do that.) And the current tariff was making more than enough money for the country as the Treasury actually had a surplus.

Although Cleveland didn’t exactly negotiate anything remotely like today’s NAFTA, the tariff dropped enough to anger the American business establishment. And that, in turn, caused a flood of money to pour into Republican campaign coffers.

In 1888, Cleveland would win the popular vote over Republican Benjamin Harrison by 90,000 votes. But, he lost the electoral vote by a 233-168 margin. New York proved to be the key state, as Harrison won it by 15,000 votes.

The election of 1888 was also marred by some political chicanery. A California Republican wrote a letter, using the pseudonym “Murchison”, to the British minister to the U.S., Lord Lionel Sackville-West, asking him who he thought would be the best candidate for British interests in the upcoming election. Sackville-West wrote back saying that he thought Cleveland would better serve England.

When this news (The Murchison Letter) hit the papers, Cleveland, who had prided himself on his independence, looked like a tool of the British. And his Irish supporters in New York moved over to the Republican side.

Historical legend says that Frances Cleveland told the White House staff  in 1889 not to move around the furniture. Frances Cleveland said that she and her husband would be back in four years. Whether this was true is unclear, but the Clevelands did indeed return in 1893.

Harrison’s presidency was marred by a Populist uprising from rural interests, who demanded that the Federal Government start issuing more currency backed by silver* (which was being produced in mass quantities compared to gold.) This was combined with the Republicans imposing a very high tariff. So, there were fewer cheap goods coming into the country, and there was a lot of inflated currency around to spend (silver certificates). Hilarity did not ensue.

* To give you an idea of the problem, silver advocates wanted to maintain the arbitrary ratio of the price of gold being 16 times the price of silver. In 2009, the price of gold is about 65 times the price of silver. The disparity wasn’t as great in the 1890s, but it was still substantial. I’d explain this better, but I’m not paid to be an economist.

Another major labor action marred by violence, the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, occurred a few months before the election. The Carnegie Steel Corporation hired Pinkerton detectives (Graff calls them “detectives”) as strikebreakers. Striking workers fired on the Pinkertons, killing ten of them.

The Democrats, with few other prospects on the horizon, trotted out Cleveland again in 1892. He was still popular, and he had still won the most popular votes the last time out. In the rematch, Cleveland bested Harrison by over 400,ooo votes, and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist Party candidate James Weaver. Cleveland became just the second president to win the popular vote three straight times, joining Andrew Jackson.

Cleveland’s second term began inauspiciously. The weather was bitterly cold on Inauguration Day and a small crowd came out to watch the ceremonies and parade.

Soon after taking office, a major financial crisis, the Panic of 1893, set in. All of the silver currency that was floating around was wreaking havoc with the financial system. Foreign creditors were demanding payment in gold. But, Western interests didn’t want to give up their silver. There wasn’t enough gold to pay foreign creditors.

To further complicate matters, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his soft palate. Since Cleveland’s vice president, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of this guy), was a silver money supporter (unlike Cleveland who backed the gold standard), there were grave concerns that the financial markets would collapse further upon the news of Cleveland’s illness.

Cleveland had his surgery done in secret, on a yacht that was floating up and down the Hudson River. First, surgeons removed the tumor, and then later a dental appliance was formed so that Cleveland’s mouth looked normal. His speech would be unaffected. News of Cleveland’s illness would not be made public until 1917.

The economy did recover. However, Cleveland used a method that would not be associated with the Democratic Party of today. Cleveland asked New York bankers, principally J.P. Morgan, to supply the government with enough gold (3.5 million ounces) to build up its reserves and help ease the credit markets. Morgan likely made millions of dollars from deals he negotiated with foreign suppliers. Morgan would later be asked by Congress to reveal how much he made on the deal. Morgan wouldn’t say.

Cleveland faced two major foreign policy crises in his second term:

The first was a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela. The British argued that the border of their colony, British Guyana, stretched much further west than what Venezuela thought. This would have given Britain a considerable chunk of the Orinoco Valley.  Ships and soldiers prepared to fight before the two sides apparently realized that no one really cared about this border (and Britain was caught up in the Boer War).

The second problem was with Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of American plantation owners dethroned Queen Liliuokalani and established a provisional government, hoping for annexation by the United States. However, Cleveland refused to annex the islands. He rejected the idea that the U.S. Government would sponsor the overthrow of a legitimate government. Cleveland’s objections only served to postpone annexation until 1898, when he was out of office.

Cleveland faced another labor problem in 1894 when Pullman workers went on strike. This led to a strike by nearly all railroad workers in the country, crippling the transportation system.

The center of the crisis was in Chicago, where union leader Eugene Debs promised that the strike would prevent all trains, even those carrying the mail, from travelling through Chicago. Cleveland reacted by sending in soldiers to operate the train. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, received an injunction against the strikers. Once Debs violated the injunction, he was arrested and the strike was crushed.

The kindly mayor from Buffalo now appeared to be nothing more than a tool of Eastern capitalists. He was no longer the honest reformer of government.

In 1896, Cleveland toyed with the idea of another term. This time, the Democrats tried to tap into the Populist movement, nominating William Jennings Bryan, who made “free silver” (aka inflated currency), his platform. Cleveland watched his party go down to defeat, although he wasn’t broken up by it, as he thought Bryan would have ruined the country.

Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey and did typical ex-president jobs, such as writing his memoirs, giving speeches, and picking up a lot of cash. He passed away in 1908.

Grover Cleveland’s time is a fascinating era in American history, with many different sociological and political changes. But from reading Graff’s book, it doesn’t seem that Grover Cleveland was nearly as interesting as the time he lived in. He was a man who was along for the ride. Graff describes Cleveland as man without charisma and without any knowledge of handling public relations (Cleveland made White House reporters wait outside for stories.). Grover Cleveland was not a person who defined his era. He just tried his best to get through it.

Other stuff: The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is located in Caldwell, Jersey. It is operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Cleveland’s unique status as the 22nd and 24th Presidents wasn’t decided officially until the 1950s. According to a New York Times article from January 10, 1950, the Congressional Directory identified Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President for the first time, changing Harry Truman from being the 32nd President to the 33rd. Truman believed he was the 32nd President, however. But, when Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he identified himself as the 34th President. The 1950 article cites an opinion by an anonymous “State Department legal adviser” in 1945 that said that Cleveland had to be the 24th President as well as the 22nd because, logically, you couldn’t have the 22nd President serving in office after the 23rd.

Cleveland had a different running mate in each of his three presidential campaigns. Thomas Hendricks was his first Vice President (he also ran as Samuel Tilden’s running mate in 1876), but he passed away in 1885. Thurman was Cleveland’s running mate in 1888. Stevenson was his running mate in 1892. Stevenson would run for Vice President again in 1900 alongside Bryan.

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Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby

President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7

Embargo! O grab me!

jeffersonIn this biography of the Third President, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby begins the seventh chapter of the book with this sentence: “Americans’ most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson.”

And speaking as someone who was taught by Professor Appleby at UCLA, this woman can give out tough assignments. (Do you want to read a good paper on the importance of mob action prior to the American Revolution? If so, don’t read the one I wrote for her class.)

Thomas Jefferson is someone that nearly everyone would like to be. For starters, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also designed his own home, Monticello, one of the nation’s architectural jewels (and for many years on the back of the nickel.) He was an inventor. He was an author. He was an intellectual. He was a civil libertarian. And he was tall (reportedly 6’3″, making him something of a Yao Ming of that era.)

But, there is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. The Thomas Jefferson who quite likely fathered a child or children from one of his slaves, and still kept them as slaves. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in liberty for all, as long as you were a white male. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution, unless it got in the way of something he really wanted to do. There is the Thomas Jefferson who was not afraid to get revenge on his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson was a definitely a man of his time. But is he a man for our time? Appleby tries to make the case for Jefferson. Her task is difficult because her book concentrates almost exclusively on the eight years Jefferson served as President, which were not his best years. However, this is a presidential biography series, so it’s those eight years we have to look at.

Jefferson had been one of the major political figures in the U.S. since 1776 because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Later, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, although he was accused of cowardice after fleeing into the Virginia hills in the face of oncoming British troops.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away, likely of complications from the numerous pregnancies (seven) she went through in their 10 years of marriage. Martha gave her husband two daughters before she passed away. Thomas Jefferson would destroy all his correspondence with his wife, which is about all the writings of his that he didn’t save. Jefferson’s complete papers still have not been completely published and may not be for another 40-50 years.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Jefferson served for a time in the Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the Northwest Ordinance, one of the few accomplishments of the pre-Constitution version of Congress. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a U.S. representative, serving alongside John Adams for a period.

While Jefferson was in Europe, the United States adopted the Constitution. While Jefferson was returning home in 1789, George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State.

Soon after joining the new government, Jefferson realized that Washington’s ear and mind belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a man whom Jefferson disagreed with. A government that was not supposed to have parties or factions quickly devolved into one with two of them: Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The battle between the two men would be over the nature of American politics. Would it be a government run by an aristocracy or a government dominated by “the common man.”

The party structure first showed up in the election of 1796, which John Adams won by just three electoral votes over Jefferson. Under the terms of the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President as the second place finisher.

The political climate grew even more rancorous during the Adams administration. Tensions from the French Revolution spilled over to the United States. Jefferson and his supporters backed France, while Adams and the Federalists feared the radical ideas of the French government.

By 1800, the political tide of the country had shifted just enough to give Jefferson the presidency. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the most electoral votes with 73 and Adams finished in third place with 68.

With a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives had to choose between Jefferson and Burr. However, the House was still controlled by Federalists. And they were in no hurry to choose a President. It took five days and 35 ballots before the deadlock was broken. Hamilton ended up being the kingmaker. While Hamilton despised Jefferson, he despised Burr twice as much.

Jefferson was upset that Burr, whom he had considered an ally, did not concede the Presidency to him. For the rest of his political career, Burr was shut out by Jefferson. Burr would eventually end up killing Hamilton in a duel. Although, he avoided prosecution for that crime. Also, Burr would be tried for treason in 1807 for trying to foment a separatist rebellion in the West. However, Burr was acquitted.

In his Inaugural Address in 1801, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone by stating, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” The spirit of bipartisan cooperation lasted about as long as the speech. As soon as he got to work, Jefferson appointed a new Cabinet, and also began to replace Federalists who held various government jobs through the country.

Jefferson also had one Federalist judge impeached, and then took aim on a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, for another impeachment. While the first judge was often drunk and possibly insane, Chase had committed no crime bigger than being obnoxious.

Chase’s impeachment trial ended with the Republicans failing to get the necessary 2/3 majority to remove Chase from the bench. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, would remain as the last Federalist bastion in American government.

Appleby writes that Jefferson had a hard time finding people to serve in government. Most people with an inclination toward serving in government at the time were Federalists. Jefferson’s supporters didn’t want to leave their current ways of life to work in Washington. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, suggested that Jefferson appoint women to some of the offices. Jefferson nixed that idea, as his world view didn’t include women working in government. (Or voting. Or doing much of anything other than having children. The only state where women could vote in Jefferson’s time was New Jersey, and that was only for single, white women who owned property. That law was repealed in 1807.)

Not long after taking office, Jefferson lucked into his greatest accomplishment as President: the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had found out that Napoleon had reacquired the Louisiana Territory for France from Spain in a secret treaty. He dispatched ministers to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Napoleon counteroffered with the whole territory, which proved to be difficult to govern. Jefferson, who at first was worried that there was no provision in the Constitution for a President to acquire new territory, decided that he could live with the idea of doubling the size of the country. Ultimately, Jefferson decided the Louisiana Purchase was a “treaty revision.”

Jefferson was incredibly popular during his first term. He was sent a 1,235 pound wheel of cheese in his honor. At the time, it was the biggest wheel of cheese ever made. (Subsequent wheels of cheese have been bigger.)

The clergy feared Jefferson because they assumed he would completely remove religion from public life in the United States. Jefferson was asked to speak to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802 or, alternatively, to declare a national day of fasting. Jefferson’s reply was famous (emphasis mine and if you count the ampersands as words, the first sentence has 83 words in it):

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

It seemed that for Thomas Jefferson, his political philosophy had caught on. His approval ratings, if such a thing had existed in 1804 when he was up for reelection, were through the roof. But, the good times would not last.

In 1802, Scottish immigrant James Callender, who had run afoul of the government under the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration, printed a story that Jefferson had fathered a child with one of his slaves. While the story may have seemed to have been nothing more than a scurrilous acussation, it was also not entirely dismissed. And Jefferson did not deny the allegation. Nor did he confirm it.

Callender was not the first person to notice that Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, seemed to have close relationship. Abigail Adams had noted a closeness between Hemings and Jefferson back in 1787 in Paris.

Appleby gives a balanced presentation of the evidence that would link Hemings to Jefferson. First, Jefferson did not list the names of the fathers of any of Hemings’ children in his ledger, which was unusual for a fastidious recordkeeper like Jefferson. Second, DNA evidence from 1998 confirmed that there was some male from the Jefferson family who fathered a child with Hemings. However, because Jefferson had no sons (only two daughters, one of whom passed away in 1804), there is not enough evidence to positively assert whose DNA it is in the Hemings gene pool.

There is no “smoking gun” that conclusively links Jefferson and Hemings, but Appleby leans to the side of Jefferson being the father of at least some of Hemings’ children. Appleby notes that Jefferson petitioned the Virginia Legislature to allow the Hemings family (who were received their manumission after Jefferson’s death) to remain in the state. Virginia law at the time, which Jefferson supported, did not allow free blacks to live in the state for more than one year.

The Federalists would try to use the Hemings story as a campaign issue in 1804, but it didn’t have much effect. The Federalists had few good candidates available, especially since Burr had murdered the party’s leader, Hamilton. Jefferson won all but two states, besting Charles Pinckney by a 162-14 margin in the Electoral College. The Vice President was elected separately and George  Clinton took over that task.

Jefferson’s second term was marred by international problems. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars slopped over on to the shores of the U.S. British ships preyed on American merchant ships looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. France wouldn’t allow American ships to trade with Britain. Britain wouldn’t let American ships trade with France.

What was Jefferson’s solution to this? An embargo. Jefferson, hampered by a greatly reduced navy and a reluctance to take on either Britain or France, ordered a complete cessation of overseas trade. Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would feel the pain of not receiving American goods.

However, the result was that the British and French continued what they were doing. Furthermore, American port cities lost millions of dollars in revenues. Enforcement of the ban was a nightmare and was about as successful as Prohibition would be over 100 years later.

Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.

In his retirement, Jefferson spent his time with various tasks. He founded the University of Virginia, primarily to establish a college for Virginians that would not be dominated by the Presbyterian Church. He also spent much of his time writing letters to his old adversary, Adams. And, he spent time trying to avoid creditors, as he lost much of his money in the Panic of 1819. Jefferson, who was a profligate spender, understood government finance much better than his own finances.

One major problem remains though in evaluating Jefferson: slavery. How could a man who wrote such eloquent words about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” spend his life owning slaves. And not just owning slaves, but most likely using them for his own sexual gratification. And buying and selling them like they were livestock.

Jefferson had his view of the world. And it was a view born out of growing up in comfortable surroundings in Piedmont Virginia, where his wealth derived from slaves. Jefferson could not escape his heritage. His racial attitudes were instilled in him from birth.

But why didn’t he change as he got older? American history is filled with people who changed their attitudes about slavery or racial equality through time. But, Jefferson is not one of those men. It is an unescapable fact.

Also, did Jefferson, a firm believer in states rights, lay the foundation for the secessionist movement in the South? That too seems to be true.

Is Jefferson still an admirable figure? In Appleby’s view, the answer is yes. Jefferson was responsible for carrying out the first peaceful change in power in world history in 1801, when his Republicans took over control of the government. Jefferson and his followers would hold on to the Presidency for all but eight years from 1801 through 1861.

Jefferson believed in a government where the common people ruled, not the aristocracy. However, Jefferson’s common people were just white males. He hadn’t been able to make the mental leap to include all parts of society. Was it that Jefferson was not ready, or was America not ready? There lies the dilemma in evaluating the life of Thomas Jefferson.

Appleby concludes that Jefferson’s greatest contribution to American history is his belief that an aristocracy was not preordained. Jefferson believed that the people could make themselves better.

If you look at Jefferson’s presidency from what the country was like when he assumed office in 1801, the changes were dramatic. But over 200 years have passed, and the country has changed even more dramatically, and, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson is not all what he thought he may have been. But for his time, he was a giant, both physically and metaphorically.

Other stuff: Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The National Park Service operates two facilities dedicated to Jefferson. One is the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial in Washington. The other is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Jefferson is buried at Monticello, with a small obelisk on his grave.

Jefferson’s portrait has been on the rarely-used $2 bill since 1929. Jefferson has appeared on the nickel since 1938 and, in 2006, his portrait was changed so he faced forward instead of in profile.

For those not scoring at home, this is biography #13.