Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

President #16, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #1

The Standard

lincolnBack when I was in eighth grade, I entered an American history essay contest at a local prep school. The winner would receive a partial scholarship to the school. It was actually a timed test in a classroom setting and we didn’t know what the question would be.

I had barely made it to the school in time as I had to serve as an altar boy at my local church. As it turned out, the church was beginning a special prayer service called “Forty Hours Devotion.” (If you’re Catholic, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you can read about it here.) The Mass that preceded the Forty Hours Devotion took an extra long time, so my classmates and I barely made it to the school in time for the test.

The essay question was: Name the greatest President and explain why. I opted to pick Abraham Lincoln, cranked out about eight paragraphs in an hour, and went home. A week later, I found out I had won the contest, which guaranteed me admission to the school for the next year. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as that school was awful, and I spent the most miserable year of my childhood there.

What’s my point here? I’m not sure. But, I hope I’m writing something more cogent on the man that I and nearly every historian considers to be America’s greatest President than I did back in eighth grade.

Abraham Lincoln biographies are not hard to find. He is the most popular figure in American history to write about. His life story almost defines America. He left an enormous amount of writing behind. He was one of the most intelligent men to hold the office, despite having just one year of formal education. He was, perhaps, the best speaker to be President. And to, top it off, he was also an incredibly shrewd politician.

George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and failed Presidential candidate in 1972, added to the canon of Lincoln biographies with this slender work, released this year, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. It is a good read about the life of the most famous President. Also, McGovern manages to add some new details about Lincoln’s political dealings that added to my understanding of the 16th President.

Abraham Lincoln, so closely identified with the state of Illinois, was actually born in then Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He shares his birthday with Charles Darwin. His parents were Thomas and Nancy. And, as we’ve learned from childhood, Lincoln was born in a log cabin.

Thomas Lincoln wasn’t extremely poor; but, due to some financial setbacks, he moved the family out of Kentucky to Indiana. Thomas also did not feel comfortable living in a state where slavery was legal. In Indiana, Nancy Lincoln passed away at age 34 after contracting a fever from drinking milk from diseased cows. Thomas would later remarry. Abraham’s stepmother, Sarah, was the one who saw that young Abraham was a special child. She gave him books and did her best to educate him. Lincoln would develop a formidable knowledge of literature and history. He also became an accomplished speaker and writer almost entirely of his own making. Few Presidents not named Thomas Jefferson were as well-read as Lincoln, and perhaps none was more eloquent as a writer and speaker.

In 1830, the family settled in Illinois, first in Macon County, and then later in Coles County. At age 22, Abraham Lincoln set out on his own and moved to New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln was interested in politics early. He ran for a seat in the Illinois Legislature in 1832 at age 23. He finished in eighth place. But, in 1834, Lincoln won. He ran as a Whig Party candidate and favored Henry Clay’s (his political idol) platform of a national bank and Federally-funded internal improvements. At this time, Lincoln began to teach himself law. He would soon be admitted to the Illinois State Bar. He quickly gained a reputation as a formidable litigator.

During his time as a legislator, Lincoln saw other dramatic changes in his personal life. His first love, a woman named Ann Rutledge, passed away in 1835. Lincoln went into a deep depression, one that likely would have required hospitalization today. These bouts of depression would recur throughout Lincoln’s life even when he was President.

Lincoln eventually became engaged to a woman named Mary Todd. The relationship started and stopped due to each person’s delicate psychological conditions. They eventually married late in 1842. They would have four sons, but only one, the eldest Robert, lived past the age of 18.

In 1844, Lincoln decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. However, the district had three Whig party candidates, all of whom were friends. Lincoln hit upon the idea that each of the three should serve one term and then give the office to the next in line.

So, Lincoln was not elected to the House of Representatives until 1846. Lincoln was an outspoken opponent of President James Polk’s plans to declare war with Mexico. Lincoln opposed the war because he opposed giving the South more territory where it could expand slavery. At this point, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery, per se, just to its expansion in to new territories.

Lincoln looked forward to the election of a Whig President in 1848. Zachary Taylor turned his success on the battlefield into a home at the White House. However, Taylor died in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore, signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which divided up the new territories into free and slave areas. This had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an act which Lincoln felt was essential to checking the growth of slavery in the United States. Back in Illinois, all Lincoln could do was rally Whig opposition to the measure. Although this was futile, Lincoln made important political connections in Illinois through his efforts.

The Whig Party died out after Winfield Scott lost to Franklin Pierce in the 1852 Presidential election. The party split along sectional lines. Northern Whigs formed a new party that was strongly opposed to the spread of slavery. They called themselves Republicans.

In 1854, Lincoln gave what McGovern described as his first great speech. Before a crowd in Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln railed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, another attempt to smooth out the slavery controversy. This act allowed for “popular sovereignty” (essentially plebiscites of the residents of the territories, although it never worked perfectly) to decide whether or not the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be organized as free or slave states.

Lincoln declared the measure to be contrary to earlier laws like the Missouri Compromise, as well as antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the declaration of independence—repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.

The speech greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile in the slavery debate. According to McGovern, it also represented a turning point in Lincoln’s life. Slavery was becoming less of a political issue and more of a moral one to Lincoln.

In 1858, Lincoln was tabbed by the Republicans to run for the Senate against the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln gave, in McGovern’s view, his second great speech in accepting the nomination. (Emphasis mine.)

If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Lincoln and Douglas would engage in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. It turned out to compelling political theater (even though each debate lasted over three and a half hours) as the race drew national attention. Lincoln, who stood 6’4″ (tallest ever to become President), faced off against the 5’4″ Douglas. Both men could command the stage. In the end, the Democrats won  enough seats in the Illinois legislature to reelect Douglas to the Senate.

Nevertheless, the publicity generated from the debates further improved Lincoln’s position nationwide. In 1860, it was beginning to look increasingly like the Republicans could win the Presidency, as the Democrats started to tear apart on a sectional basis. In February of 1860, Lincoln gave what McGovern called “his third famous speech.” It was an address at the Cooper Union in New York City.

The speech laid out Lincoln’s idea that the Founding Fathers intended for slavery to disappear. He urged the Federal government to act and do the right thing. Slavery was too important of an issue to be used as a political bargaining chip.

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, Lincoln’s supporters managed to get him nominated on the second ballot. There were backroom deals (Cabinet choices and patronage promises) made to help secure some delegates; but, ultimately, the Republicans knew that Lincoln had wide appeal to all Northerners.

The Democrats could not agree on a candidate. They held two conventions and nominated two different candidates, Douglas and John Breckinridge. John Bell of Tennessee was a fourth candidate, running under the Constitutional Union Party banner. Bell tried to appeal to the still strong nativist movement (think Lou Dobbs) that had once been called the Know-Nothing Party.

Even though Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in eight Southern states, he won the election easily. Lincoln picked up 39.9% of the popular vote. Douglas finished in second at 29.5%. In terms of electoral votes, Lincoln had 180 with Breckinridge in second at 72.

Southerners reacted to the election of Lincoln by threatening to secede. Lincoln did not believe that Southern states would go with through such a plan. It had been talked about for decades, dating back to the Jackson administration. But, this time, the South meant it. South Carolina voted to secede in December of 1860. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, eight states has passed acts of secession.

Due to threats made against his life, Lincoln sneaked into Washington in the middle of the night before the Inauguration. In his Inaugural Address, he held out an olive branch to the South.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that— I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

However, just a month later, Lincoln decided to send supplies to Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. Southerners interpreted this action as hostile and opened fire on the fort. The Civil War had begun.

Lincoln’s actions during the beginning of the Civil War were controversial and remain so to this day. Believing that secession was unconstitutional, Lincoln refused to meet with any Southern leaders. He viewed their actions as acts of rebellion.

Soon after the Civil War began, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights. At first, the suspension was only in an area immediately surrounding the capital, although it would later extend to the whole country. Lincoln believed that he had to take drastic steps to keep the secessionists in check. However, the President has no authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus. That right is reserved to Congress (Congress would subsequently approve the suspension.) Despite an unfavorable court ruling, Lincoln maintained the suspension of habeas corpus. Even McGovern, who writes in a worshipful style, has a hard time defending Lincoln’s actions.

Later on, Lincoln would order newspapers that were sympathetic to the Confederacy to be shut down. He also authorized the Treasury to make direct cash payments to individuals, another unconstitutional action. (The Treasury can only make payments to people if Congress appropriates the money.)

DSCF0718Nevertheless, Lincoln believed that he had to take these drastic steps in order to preserve the union and the Constitution.

By 1862, Lincoln had finally moved into the camp that believed that slavery had to be totally abolished. Lincoln did not want to wait for the war to end. He believed that under his powers as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that he could order the freedom of the slaves. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s most trusted adviser, told him that the Proclamation should not be issued until after a major victory by Federal forces. Seward feared that if the Emancipation Proclamation were issued when the Confederacy was winning on the battlefield, it would look like a desperate maneuver to curry favor internationally.

However, early in the war, the Confederacy was winning more than its share of battles. The Union Army was hampered by poor leadership. Union generals were unwilling to confront the main portion of the Confederate Army.  But, after the horrifically bloody battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, a day that saw more Americans die on a battlefield than any other day ever (over 3,600 men on both sides), Lincoln felt that his military position was secure enough to issue the Proclamation.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln’s proclamation read, in part:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did little in actually making any slave free immediately, it forever changed the terms of the engagement. The Civil War was no longer being fought over abstract concepts like Federal or State sovereignty. It was not fought over the concept of whether or not the Constitution was a voluntary pact. It was now a battle between two forces: one who believed that no one had the right to hold another person as property, and another that believed that it did.

Lincoln was an active Commander in Chief during the Civil War. He changed generals in charge of the Army as often as George Steinbrenner changed Yankees managers in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln finally found his man: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant agreed with Lincoln’s concept of fighting a total war against the South. No longer would the Union just try to wear down the South into surrender. Instead, the North would try to destroy the South completely.

The process would be a long and painful one. Hundreds of thousands died during the Civil War. Lincoln started conscripting soldiers, a plan that met with massive opposition in parts of the country. In New York City, riots in opposition to conscription lasted for a week and killed over 100 people. But, the Union Army kept getting its supply of soldiers. And the Union contingent would always remain numerically superior to the Confederacy.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cemetery for the soldiers who died in massive battle there earlier in July was to be dedicated. Lincoln spoke only briefly at the ceremony. But his words, the Gettysburg Address, are, perhaps, the most famous speech ever given by a President. Lincoln succinctly summarized everything that the United States was fighting for and what it hoped to be.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Despite the war, there was still another election to be held in 1864. Lincoln believed that a Presidential election would be beneficial to the country. It would demonstrate that the nation’s democratic principles had not been compromised by the rebellion.

Lincoln took no chances during the election. He dropped his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, from the ticket in favor of pro-Union Tennessee senator Andrew Johnson. Hamlin had been toying with the idea of replacing Lincoln with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Lincoln decided to take both Hamlin and Chase out of the picture. Chase would become Chief Justice. Other Republicans wanted Grant to run in 1864, but the general declined.

The Democrats ran one of Lincoln’s fired commanders, George McClellan. Although McClellan had shown to be mostly incompetent on the battlefield, the soldiers he commanded had mostly loved him. The election of 1864 was expected to be close. McClellan’s hope rested on the belief that the North was tired of the war and would accept peace at any terms. Lincoln even believed that he was going to lose.

But, in the fall of 1864, the war began to turn decisively in the Union’s favor. On September 2, 1864, Union forces under the command of General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and burnt it to the ground. Grant’s troops won a series of bloody conflicts in Virginia.

Lincoln, a master politician at any time, arranged for soldiers to get leaves to go home to vote, or, to vote absentee from the battlefields. Soldiers became fundraisers for Lincoln in some cases. The election of 1864 was a huge victory for Lincoln. Lincoln won all but three states (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) and over 55% of the vote.

After the election, Sherman led his army on a march through the state of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, laying waste to nearly everything in its path. The South was being brought to its knees by the onslaught of power from the North.

With victory seemingly at hand, Lincoln again struck a conciliatory tone during his Second Inaugural. The brief address (the shortest Inaugural Address ever given) contained these words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Although it may have seemed that all of Lincoln’s activities as President involved the war, he made three other notable contributions to the United States. The first was the income tax, which was implemented as a wartime measure to raise funds. The second was the Homestead Act, which gave away land in the territories to people who would improve it. The third was the Morrill Act, which set up the Land Grant College system, which established many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious state universities. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally banned slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress during Lincoln’s time, although it would be ratified later.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. The war was over. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington. Lincoln had now become a martyr. He passed almost instantly from politician to legend.

McGovern asks if anything can be learned from rehashing the life of Abraham Lincoln so many times. Perhaps, we don’t think about Lincoln’s life enough. As McGovern writes:

Abraham Lincoln holds the highest place in American history.  General William T. Sherman said, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” He was our greatest president, against whom all others will forever be measured. We wish our leaders could be more like him; we wish we all could be. There has never been an American story like Abraham Lincoln’s.

Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency was far from perfect. But if you compare him to the men who came before and after him in the office, he was indispensable. One adage goes “History is written by the winners.” Thankfully for the United States, I wrote about Abraham Lincoln the way I did.

Other stuff: Abraham Lincoln is memorialized seemingly everywhere. He is buried in Springfield, Illinois, which is also the site of the Abraham Lincoln Home. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the capital. If you can’t find something that bears Abraham Lincoln’s image on it, you are either someone who doesn’t like pennies, or you are a person who believes that the South will rise again. If you’re the latter, you’re wrong. All the South gets now is exaggerated love of its college football teams from ESPN.

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William McKinley by Kevin Phillips

President #25, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #16

The War With Spain Starts Mainly With the Maine

mckinleyWhile many kids grew up with toy soldiers, my childhood featured a set of plastic toy Presidents. (And much to my glee, a complete set is on display at the Smithsonian now. It includes an intact Lyndon Johnson. Our LBJ was missing part of his right arm. The family set remains, as it has since 1970, in a Pangburn’s Frappe Creams box. It is presently at my brother’s home in Clayton, Missouri. You can make an appointment to see them.) While these should have been educational toys for my brothers and I, we tended to use them to set up football plays. When forming teams, Taft and Cleveland were almost always used as linemen, but so was William McKinley. He just looked so big.

As it turned out, McKinley wasn’t a big guy. He was actually just 5’7″ and probably didn’t weigh all that much. I really should have been using McKinley as a wide receiver or a running back.

So, what is the point of this introductory story? After reading Kevin Phillips’ biography of McKinley, it seems that there was a lot I didn’t know about our 25th President. Have I spent my whole life completely misunderstanding the life of William McKinley? And if I have, does anyone care? If you don’t care, presumably you’ll stop reading.

OK. Now, I’ll continue for those who might care or just aren’t reading carefully.

I had been taught that McKinley was little more than a tool of Big Business, who used him as a puppet to line their pockets. I was also led to believe that McKinley also started the United States on an imperialist path because he was cowed into it by a sensationalist press. Finally, I knew McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and a young Theodore Roosevelt took over and brought America to true greatness.

However, Phillips thinks that McKinley has been greatly underestimated by historians. He argues that McKinley was much more independent minded than people gave him credit for. McKinley was not the last President before the Progressive movement swept the country; rather, he was the first Progressive President, according to Phillips. Only an untimely assassination early in his second term prevented McKinley from taking his place alongside the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts.

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended both Mount Union and Allegheny Colleges, but did not receive a degree from either institution. When the Civil War began, McKinley enlisted. One of the officers McKinley served under was future president Rutherford Hayes. By the time war ended, McKinley had been promoted from private all the way to brevet major. McKinley’s Civil War experiences would help to shape his future.

During the war, McKinley became well-known among Ohio Republicans. McKinley attended law school in Albany, New York and started up a practice back home in Canton, Ohio.

While in Canton, McKinley met and married a wealthy woman, Ida Saxton. The couple had two children who died young. These deaths, combined with the death of Ida’s mother, turned out to be both a physical and mental strain on Ida. She developed a form of epilepsy and was bed-ridden for most of the rest of her life. When she would venture out in public, she would frequently have a seizure. William would cover her face with a napkin and carry her out of the room. William would be intensely, yet quietly devoted to Ida for the rest of his life.

By 1877, McKinley had won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served until 1891; although, he was out of office for one term starting in 1883.

In his final term in the House, McKinley was chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee. He authored a protective tariff bill that bore his name in 1890. McKinley actually didn’t like the finished product all that much. But, McKinley supported the bill anyway. However, the high tariffs in the bill proved unpopular at the ballot box. In the 1891 election, McKinley was voted out of office.

However, McKinley wasn’t out of politics for long as he was quickly elected Governor of Ohio later in the year. He was sworn into office in 1892.

McKinley surprised some in office with his support for the plight of a group of starving coal miners. They had sent a telegram to him describing their plight. McKinley was moved and marshaled State resources to help the miners and their families. McKinley also started a statewide charity drive to help others in need.

Around the same time, McKinley was also in dire financial straits personally. A loan he had given a friend had gone bad, and McKinley was now facing a debt of over $100,000. However, thanks to the financial resources of Ida (whose money was tied up in a trust) and the help of many of Ohio’s major businessmen, including Marcus Hanna, McKinley was able to avoid bankruptcy.

Some had already thought of McKinley as a Presidential candidate back in 1892; but, McKinley knew that 1896 would be a better time to run. Also, McKinley did not want to look disloyal to Republican party faithfuls by unseating a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison.

1896 would be a good year for Republicans. The main reason for this was that the country had entered into a deep recession starting in 1893 (the Panic of 1893 as it was called.) The Democratic party was being taken over by candidates who wanted to increase the use of silver over gold as currency. However, at the time, silver was far more plentiful than gold and the Democratic plan would have led to a high rate of inflation.

The Democrats nominated a previously little known Nebraska Representative named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President. Bryan had delivered a stirring address where he said, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan was the first nominee of either major party in the United States to run a campaign that was targeted almost exclusively at the lower classes. He viewed the election as a battle between the forces of good in rural areas against those of evil in the cities. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

McKinley won the Republican nomination easily. He and his advisors decided not to try to match Bryan’s oratorical feats on the campaign trail. Instead, McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign. Crowds of supporters trained into Canton to listen to the Republican nominee.

The Election of 1896 would be a pivotal one in American history. McKinley triumphed with 51.1% of the popular vote, and winning in the Electoral College by a margin of 271-176. McKinley was able to hold on to a few key states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota) and the West (California and Oregon) to win the election. The United States was not going down a populist path.

Soon after taking office, McKinley began to firm up American support for the gold standard. The economy began to improve. The growing economy needed markets to sell its goods. The United States was going to need foreign markets to take more exports.

The popular way of achieving this at the time was to take over some distant point on the globe. European powers were carving up Africa and parts of Asia. The United States needed to get into the act.

The first place the United States aimed to add was Hawai’i. The island group had overthrown its monarchy during the second Grover Cleveland administration and wanted to be annexed by the U.S. Cleveland did not feel this was right; but, McKinley had no reservations. By 1898, Hawai’i had become a U.S. territory.

Closer to home, there were rumblings in Cuba. An insurgency by Cubans against the ruling Spanish authority had gathered sympathy in the United States. The Spanish began to gather Cubans from the countryside and put them into what were called “concentration camps.” (At the time, this phrase did not have the same implication as it would during World War II. It just meant that there were a lot of people in one place.)

McKinley had ordered the Navy to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The battleship Maine was in the harbor in Havana on February 15, 1898, when it exploded. The ship was destroyed and 267 men were killed.

American public opinion blamed Spain for the loss of life. Whether or not this was true is still hotly debated. However, McKinley was put into a position where he could no longer ignore Spanish atrocities in Cuba once they were combined with the deaths of American sailors.

Some wanted McKinley to ask for a declaration of war immediately. But, McKinley waited until April before asking Congress to declare war. This allowed American forces to gather themselves and prepare for war. McKinley feared that other European powers, namely Germany, would come to Spain’s aid.

However, that was not the case. The Navy was already in position in Manila to wipe out the Spanish fleet there when war was finally declared. Spanish troops in Cuba were easily beaten by a small American force. The war began on April 25, 1898 and was over on August 12. The United States ended up with control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

More importantly, the United States Navy had grown from being the 12th largest in the world to the second largest, behind only Great Britain. The United States had served notice that it was a world power.

The popular view of the Spanish-American War was that McKinley vacillated before declaring war, and only overwhelming public opinion, and the influence of pro-war Cabinet members, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, pushed McKinley into going to war. Phillips argues that McKinley was well aware of the situation, but only wanted war as a last resort. His Civil War experience had stayed with him. McKinley was greatly relieved that there were few casualties in this war.

In the 1898 midterm elections, McKinley and the Republicans lost just 19 seats, a good mark for that era. The Republicans still enjoyed a healthy 187-161 majority in the House. (There were nine Representatives from other parties.)

McKinley was personally popular. He pushed for higher tariffs, but on a more scientific basis. He wanted high tariffs only in areas that would help promote American business. In some areas, he wanted lower tariffs in order to help Americans buy cheaper goods. He also pushed to set up a series of reciprocal trade agreements with other countries. The last goal would not be achieved during his time in office, however.

After the war, McKinley made two key changes to his Cabinet.  John Hay took over as Secretary of State and Elihu Root became Secretary of War. Both men were capable diplomats and administrators. McKinley had originally staffed the job with political appointees, John Sherman and Russell Alger. When McKinley saw that neither man was up to the job, he eased them out. Hay and Root’s influences on American foreign policy would persist into the 1950s.

By the time the 1900 Election rolled around, it was evident that it was going to be a rematch of 1896. Bryan was still the Democratic nominee. McKinley had to find a new running mate. Garret Hobart, his Vice President, had passed away in 1899.

The Republican leaders wanted McKinley to choose Secretary of the Navy John Long. But, McKinley had his eye on New York Governor Thedore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after famously serving in the Spanish-American War, had made enemies in New York with a property tax plan that many thought was just a scheme to redistribute wealth. However, the plan was popular among most New Yorkers. McKinley told the Republican Convention that he didn’t want Long as his running mate. Instead, he hinted that it should be Roosevelt. And so it was.

McKinley won about the same percentage of the popular vote in 1900, but his electoral lead was slightly larger (292-155). The Republican House contingent moved back up to 200 seats, a gain of 13.

With a healthy amount of political capital gained from a successful war, a booming economy, and a friendly Congress, McKinley likely had big plans for his second term, according to Phillips. McKinley was preparing a plan to go after business trusts, which he felt were undemocratic and anti-competitive. McKinley also was hoping to ease tensions between management and labor.

At the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, McKinley made a speech pushing for reciprocal trade agreements, one of his favorite issues. The day after the speech, September 6, 1901, McKinley went to shake hands with the crowd. One of the people in the crowd was a man named Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan native with anarchist sympathies. Czolgosz had concealed a revolver under a handkerchief. He fired twice at McKinley. The second bullet lodged deeply in McKinley, hitting several vital organs.

Although there was an X-ray machine available at the site, the device was in its infancy and no one knew if using it to find the bullet would cause more harm than good. McKinley lingered for eight days, passing away on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President, the youngest man (42 years old) to ever hold the office.

Phillips argues that if McKinley had not been assassinated, he would have accomplished just as much as Roosevelt did during his administration. McKinley’s problem was that he left a very short paper trail of his plans. McKinley’s thoughts about what he planned to do in his second term are very sketchy. Theodore Roosevelt followed most of McKinley’s policies, except that he was a far more charismatic figure. Phillips also asserts that Roosevelt did not push for any reciprocal trade agreements because he didn’t understand the issue as well as McKinley did.

The issue of America becoming a colonial power is one that is even more problematic. Phillips believes that it was a necessity for the U.S. to become one, both for strategic and economic reasons. Phillips asserts that McKinley tried his best to make the move as peacefully as possible. However, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines that would last for years past McKinley’s death may be evidence against that. Nevertheless, both Democratic (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman) and Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) made the U.S. a world power. McKinley was the President who started the country on that path.

The best evidence for McKinley’s influence on American history is the legacy of his appointees. In an appendix, Phillips lists people appointed by or associated with McKinley who went on to greater fame. Besides Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, there was also McKinley’s secretary, George Corteylou, who would serve as the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Charles Dawes was Comptroller of the Currency under McKinley and would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to restructure Europe’s World War I debts and serve as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. (There are 12 total listed by Phillips.)

However, McKinley has never been ascribed the fame in history that Phillips wish he had earned. The bright light of Theodore Roosevelt makes it difficult to appreciate William McKinley. This was even true during McKinley’s time as the linked cartoon seems to indicate. Also, the biggest political issue of McKinley’s era, the primacy of the gold standard, was made a nonissue after the Great Depression.

Phillips tries to make McKinley’s accomplishments out to be earth shattering, but not everyone might believe it. It’s hard to look back at McKinley and see if he had, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “the vision thing.” Theodore Roosevelt definitely did. McKinley worked quietly and often behind the scenes. And no matter what Phillips writes, McKinley will likely remain behind the scenes for most of us.

Theodore Roosevelt ended up on Mount Rushmore. William McKinley perhaps should have had a better fate than ending up as an offensive lineman in a game of toy presidents played by nerdy kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

Other stuff: The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum is in Canton, Ohio. It is operated by the Stark County Historical Association. It is also McKinley’s burial spot.

The highest point in the United States is often referred to as Mount McKinley, although the native Athabaskan name of Denali is now also used to describe the 20,320 feet high peak in Alaska.

William McKinley was the first incumbent U.S. president to visit California. He was making plans to become the first president to visit outside the country before he died. Thedore Roosevelt would be the first U.S. President to visit a foreign country, Panama.

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John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

So what can I do for you?

President #35, C-SPAN Historians ranking #6

kennedyFor a man who had a shorter term in office than all but six other presidents (Barack Obama not included), John Kennedy might be studied and written about more than any other 20th Century president. Robert Dallek, who also has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, produced a scholarly biography of a man who was at times heroic, at times hesitant, often sick, and almost always on the prowl for another sexual conquest. It’s a unique combination of detailed policy analysis with generous helpings of tawdry (yet, true) details of Kennedy’s life.

Dallek was given unprecedented access to Kennedy’s medical history and what he uncovered there turned out to be what this book will be most remembered for. For all the romance of “Camelot” or “The New Frontier,” underneath it all was a man, who was elected at at the age of 43 (the youngest ever elected), who was beset by numerous serious health problems and was treated by physicians in such a way that most of us would rather just take our chances with the local HMO.

So alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are descriptions of crippling back pain relieved mostly by a series of painkilling injections by doctors with questionable credentials. We find out that Kennedy took, at times, sleeping pills, antidepressants, amphetamines, testosterone, and probably a few other drugs that most of us would blanch at taking. Yet through it all, according to Dallek, Kennedy remained lucid and clear in his decision-making.
For someone who was President during the lifespan of a lot of people reading this (I missed by two years), it is surprising to me how much mythology has built up around Kennedy. Dallek tries to strip away the mythology and show how Kennedy was able to propel himself so quickly to the highest office in the U.S.

John Kennedy was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Boston. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was expected to be the political star of the family, but he died in a plane crash during World War II and it was left for the second son, John (called Jack throughout the book, there’s a lot of first name reference in the book so you can keep people straight), to fulfill the wishes of his father, Joseph Sr., to become America’s first Catholic president.

Dallek details the medical problems that hit young Jack when he’s in prep school and set him on a course for lifelong illness. Kennedy was beset by intestinal problems early on and Dallek goes into quite a bit of detail on this.

The problem, as best as I could figure out, was that Kennedy’s intestinal problems were treated with a strong regimen of steroids. The problem was that doctors didn’t quite know how much to prescribe. Or when to take it. Or when to stop. And the longtime use of these steroids (not the anabolic kind, but Kennedy would take those later), led to osteoporosis (and chronic back pain that required surgery) and Addison’s disease (a deficiency in the adrenal glands that was potentially life-threatening). And then there were also chronic problems with the prostate, which probably wasn’t helped by Kennedy’s promiscuity.

John Kennedy became a war hero for his efforts to save his crew aboard PT-109, although he had to have several strings pulled for him to get into the military. Most people with Kennedy’s maladies would have spent World War II behind a desk, but Kennedy knew the importance of having a combat background if he wanted to go into politics.

Back from the war, Kennedy ran for the House in 1946 and then moved on the Senate in 1952. Despite numerous hospitalizations in 1954 and 1955 for spinal surgeries, Kennedy still had a high enough profile to get himself considered as possible running mate to Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Joseph Kennedy actually tried to get Lyndon Johnson to run for President and have his son be his running mate, but Johnson did not think that the Democrats had much chance to win in 1956.

Soon after Stevenson’s loss to Eisenhower, Kennedy started positioning himself to run for President in 1960. Few campaigns have received more attention as they were multiple story lines.

There was the young, rich, attractive Senator from Massachusetts trying to overcome religious prejudice. There were Cold War overtones throughout. The Kennedy-Nixon television debates changed the way presidential campaigns were conducted. In the end, Kennedy won by a narrow margin over Nixon, thanks in part to some “interesting” vote counting in Illinois and Texas. Dallek attributes the closeness of the election to the hesitancy of many Southern Protestant voters to elect a Catholic. The 1960 election was set up nicely for the Democrats as there was a recession and Kennedy was able to outspend Nixon. (In general, Kennedys outspend everyone in elections. It’s a family tradition.)

After Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, Dallek starts to dissect the Kennedy presidency. There were many doubts if someone so young could handle such a big job. And at the outset, Kennedy definitely looked not up to the task.

Kennedy was faced with crises external, in Laos (where he chose not to intervene), and internally, with a civil rights issue with the Freedom Riders. And in April of 1961, Kennedy gave the go ahead to the CIA plan to remove Castro from power with a paramilitary force. That turned out to be what is known as The Bay of Pigs. And it was an utter failure.

Soon after, Kennedy ventured to Vienna for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. Kennedy’s performance at this was widely criticized as the young president was not prepared for Khruschev’s belligerence regarding East Germany and Berlin.

On the domestic front, which Kennedy didn’t seem to care about as much as foreign policy, there were problems. The Kennedy administration was slow to take action on civil rights legislation because the Congress was still dominated by conservative Southerners in important positions, and Kennedy didn’t want to alienate an important part of his party that he needed if he wanted to be reelected in 1964.

Economically, the country was in a recession and Kennedy wanted to push through a large income tax cut, although opposition from conservatives (both Democratic and Republican) kept Kennedy from getting the complete package of reforms he wanted. Plans to increase Federal funding for education also went nowhere.

The biggest crisis of Kennedy’s administration was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962. It was perhaps the closest time ever that the US and Soviet Union ever came to a full-scale nuclear exchange. But, fortunately, Khruschev backed down from placing offensive weapons in Cuba and Kennedy opted not to follow the advice of his military advisers, who wanted an armed invasion of Cuba. This event, probably more than any other, secured Kennedy’s legacy, even though all he was doing was reacting to posturing by the Soviet Union. Of course, Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know if all Khruschev was doing was posturing or was really intent on war.

By 1963, Kennedy’s popularity was steadily increasing. He gave a speech at American University in June of 1963 where he made his case for nuclear disarmament to the Soviet Union. Soon after the speech, the first comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was agreed to between the Americans and Soviets.

Later in 1963, Kennedy had a triumphant trip to Berlin, where he rallied the hopes of West  Berlin residents with his famous (although semantically incorrect) statement of “Ich bin ein Berliner!

The final months of the the Kennedy administration (not that he was expecting them to be the final months) brought up one of the most troubling parts of that era: Vietnam. On November 1, 1963 Kennedy authorized the CIA to start a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Diem, who was killed during the the military takeover. Dallek portrays Kennedy as being deeply troubled by the violence of the coup and whether or not U.S. involvement in that region would ever work. But would Kennedy have increased the military buildup in Vietnam to the point where it became what we know as the Vietnam War?

Before that question could be answered, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And the answer to that question (along with many others) is still hotly debated.

So just what did John F. Kennedy do as President? What did he accomplish? In Dallek’s view, his primary accomplishments were: 1) standing up to Khruschev and the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 2) the development of the space program, which Dallek felt greatly improved America’s international standing, and 3) the establishment of the Peace Corps. Despite Dallek’s admiration for Kennedy, I doubt he would have rated Kennedy as high as the panel of historians C-SPAN assembled.

Obviously, some people are going to disagree with this assessment. For some, Kennedy will be the man who was more show than substance. He was a man who, in many ways, bought his way to the top. Kennedy didn’t get any major civil rights legislation passed (that happened in the Johnson Administration). He was a man who presented an image of a loving family man who was physically fit, when in reality he was very ill and cheated on his wife with women who were connected to mobsters.

It’s almost like John F. Kennedy is whomever people want him to be. If you’ve got the time to plow through an 830 page biography (it’s only about 700 pages of text, the rest of it is notes and an index), then Robert Dallek’s book is for you. It is not hagiography. It is not a hatchet job either. But like Kennedy, the book will ultimately reflect what you want it to be.

Other stuff: As you would expect, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is in Boston.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, California. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake destroyed a couple buildings on campus and allowed ones that were slightly less ugly to be put in their place.

Kennedy is unique among Presidents in that he is the only one widely commemorated on the day he died, November 22, rather than on his birthday, May 29.

John Kennedy’s seat in the House was filled by future Speaker Tip O’Neill. His Senate seat was filled by Benjamin Smith, who held it for two years before John Kennedy’s youngest brother,  Edward, was elected in 1962.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the only current member of the Senate to have served alongside John Kennedy in that body. Representative John Dingell of Michigan served alongside Kennedy in the House.

There are now two Senators who were born after John Kennedy’s death: Michael Bennett of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The New York Times review of this book was written by Ted Widmer, who wrote the Martin Van Buren bio that I had reviewed earlier. Van Buren and Kennedy remain the only two Presidents who were not partially English.

Although Kennedy was the first Catholic president, there was not a Catholic Vice President until Joe Biden. The first Catholic Chief Justice was Roger Taney, way back  in 1836.

The next bio I will review will be shorter. So there may not be as long of a gap before the next review.

James Garfield by Ira Rutkow

You should put some Bactine on that

President #20, C-SPAN Historians ranking #28

jamesgarfieldJames Garfield served as President from March 4 through September 19, 1881, the second shortest tenure of any person to hold the office. Garfield’s assassination was  tragic, although the most tragic part was not the violence perpetrated by Charles Guiteau, but rather by the the incompetent medical care that Garfield received from a group of doctors who refused to adopt some of the most basic medical principles that we take for granted today.

Because Garfield’s presidency was so short and he spent much of it (80 days) dying from his bullet wound, this biography of Garfield was given to Ira Rutkow, a surgeon who has written numerous books on medical history. Garfield’s biography is intriguing, although if reading about gruesome medical conditions is not your thing, you may wish to pass this book by.

Rutkow does discuss Garfield’s rise from his humble beginnings in Ohio (he was the last president to be born in a log cabin) to the White House. And Garfield was undoubtedly a brilliant man, although politically, his greatest gift was giving good speeches.  He was not an especially inspiring leader, but he was respected.

Garfield rose to fame during the Civil War serving as the chief of staff to Union General William Rosecrans, although Garfield left the Army in 1863 to take over a House seat for Ohio. Rosecrans was relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland after a terrible defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. Garfield and Rosecrans are linked in the city of Paramount, California where streets named after them intersect. (Although some sources say Garfield Avenue is actually named for Garfield’s widow, Lucretia.)

While serving in the House, Garfield aligned himself with the Radical Republicans and he even came out against the reelection of Abraham Lincoln. But he built a reputation as a thoughtful and well-read Representative and someone to watch out for in the future.

And like so many politicians of the era, Garfield was touched by scandals, including the Credit Mobilier scandal (it’s another one of those events you hoped your teacher didn’t put on the midterm) and also for receiving excessive fees for serving as a lobbyist for a company. But compared to what was going in the Grant Administration, Garfield looked pretty clean.

In 1880, the Republican Party, which barely held on to the White House in 1876 thanks to some last-minute Electoral College chicanery (the Democrats were equally guilty of chicanery. It was a very chicanerous time.), was divided into two factions: the Stalwarts who wanted to bring back Ulysses Grant for a third term. This faction was led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. The Stalwarts liked the spoils system and political appointments for cronies all around.

The other faction was called the Half-Breeds and they were led by James Blaine, who had been Speaker of the House. This group tended to be a bit more conciliatory toward the South and wanted some civil service reform. The Half-Breeds had two candidates: Blaine and Ohio Senator John “my older brother burned down Georgia” Sherman.

Three strong candidates at a political convention lends itself well to a deadlock and one quickly developed. Garfield, who was hoping for such a deadlock, ended up being the compromise choice and he prevailed in the general election over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock (another Union General) by margin of about 7,000 votes (Rutkow uses a figure of 2,000). The Electoral Vote wasn’t as close with Garfield winning 214-155.

Upon election, nothing went well for Garfield. Conkling demanded that his faction of the party be represented in Garfield’s Cabinet, even though the Vice-President, Chester Arthur, was a Conkling crony. Garfield ended up piecing together a Cabinet that no one liked.

After his inauguration, Garfield soon discovered that his campaign manager was involved in a scandal where he took exorbitant fees to deliver mail to rural areas through companies he controlled. But the mail never got delivered in those areas.

The biggest headache for Garfield came when he tried to appoint someone to the lucrative position of Customs Collector for the Port of New York who was not acceptable to Conkling, who tried to block the move with some parliamentary tricks. Conkling’s effort failed and, out of spite or pique, Conkling resigned his Senate seat (as did New York’s other Senator, Thomas “Me Too” Platt) hoping to be reelected to the Senate by the New York legislature. The New York legislature chose two other people.

So Conkling was out of the picture and life seemed better for James Garfield as he was heading to catch a train to  his alma mater of Williams College and a vacation with his wife in New Englad.

Enter Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a man with many psychiatric problems (this amateur psychiatrist thinks he was schizophrenic) and he was disappointed that Garfield and his new Secretary of State, Blaine, had not appointed him to be a U.S. consul in either Vienna or Paris. People in Washington knew Guiteau as “that crazy guy who keeps asking for a job.” But they didn’t know that he wasn’t harmless. He had a gun and he fired twice into Garfield’s back.

The first medical officer to examine Garfield stuck his unsterilized finger into the wound to look for the bullet, but couldn’t find it. (Rutkow speculates that the first person examining Garfield may have had manure on his hands.) Then another doctor came in and he tried to find the bullet with his finger. Then he took a metal probe and stuck it inside Garfield’s bullet wound and poked around, but didn’t find the bullet. However, it was assumed that the bullet hit Garfield’s liver. It hadn’t.

Garfield was taken back to the White House where the doctor who took over the case, a man who was literally a doctor in name only. The man’s name was Doctor William Bliss. Was he Dr. Doctor William Bliss? Who knows for sure? It didn’t take much in 1881 to call yourself “Doctor” as licensing of physicians hadn’t started, but Doctor was the man’s given name. Bliss wasn’t even the Garfield family physician. They frequented a homeopathic doctor in Washington.

Bliss never could figure out that Garfield kept suffering from high fevers, extreme nausea, and a rapid heart rate because he had developed massive infections from his wound being continually poked and prodded at with unsterilized instruments. Garfield spent the last 80 days of his life in misery and agony that would have been easily preventable today and could have been prevented back in 1881 if Bliss hadn’t held on to his belief that antiseptic practices were just a fad. Alexander Graham Bell was even brought in to help out and that was pretty much a disaster.

Rutkow’s description of Garfield’s care can be quite harrowing to read. It’s also remarkable to find out how much medical science has changed in the past 128 years. Rutkow compares the treatment that Ronald Reagan received in 1981 to the treatment that Garfield received 100 years later earlier. Garfield’s wound would have been treated fairly simply in 1981 and he likely would have been out of the hospital in a day or two. Reagan’s injuries in 1881 likely would have killed him within a day if Bliss had taken over the case (mostly because Bliss wouldn’t have bothered to check on Reagan’s respiration or blood pressure.) Guiteau’s bullet did not hit any of Garfield’s vital organs nor did it cause any spinal cord damage.

Bliss would later publish articles on his treatment of Garfield in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. Here is an example of one such document, but I don’t suggest clicking that link until you’re sure you aren’t going to eat for a while.

James Garfield didn’t want to leave a legacy of dying at a young age (49) from medical malpractice, but that’s what history remembers him for. But at least he helped get doctors to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments.

Notes: James Garfield’s home, dubbed Lawnfield by reporters during the 1880 campaign, is run by the National Park Service as the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. It is located in Mentor, Ohio.

Garfield was the first president whose mother watched his inauguration. Garfield’s widow, Lucretia, moved to Pasadena, California for the winters after her husband’s death and passed away in 1918, although she is buried alongside her husband in a cemetery in Cleveland.