Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism by Jules Tygiel

President #40, C-SPAN Historians ranking #10

40 is the new -30-

Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.

For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.

Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a twovolume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.

I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.

One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)

Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.

The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading

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Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun

President #23, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #30

Benjamin in the middle

Benjamin Harrison ran for President twice and never got the most popular votes. Republicans chose him to run because he both a famous name (his grandfather was William Henry Harrison) and he came from an important swing state at the time (Indiana). Few of us would likely be able to name any of his accomplishments.

Charles W. Calhoun, a professor at East Carolina University (which is in North Carolina, unlike Coastal Carolina University which is in South Carolina) who is one of the most prominent historians who study the Gilded Age, manages to both humanize Harrison while also elevating his place in history.

Benjamin Harrison was President in a time when power shifted between Republicans and Democrats often. Populist political movements threatened to take down the establishments of both parties. There were violent strikes affecting crucial industries and widespread dissatisfaction with the nature of the economy. Harrison’s four years in office were far from tranquil.

The man in charge of the country during this time was a Born Again Christian Republican who favored a big government, a high tariff, and increased civil rights for African-Americans. He had majorities to work with in Congress for his first two years, but could only pass a portion of what he wanted. Harrison’s boldest ideas (in the area of civil rights) fell victim to Senate filibusters and political horse trading.

Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, the same city where his grandfather would be buried after a just a month as President in 1841. Harrison’s father, John Scott Harrison, was a member of the House of Representatives. After two years at Farmers College in Cincinnati (which is no longer in existence), Harrison enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (Graduates of this university do not like you to call it “Miami of Ohio” as they feel, quite rightly, that their school is far more distinguished than the University of Miami in Florida. It would help the case of the Ohioans if they had bothered to get the correct URL.)

After graduating in 1852, Harrison apprenticed with an another attorney to learn the law. He married Caroline Scott in 1853, passed the bar in 1854, and moved to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. Harrison wanted to move out of Ohio because he did not want to trade on his family name to get ahead.

Harrison quickly built a reputation as an excellent attorney, especially in criminal trials. In 1857, the people of Indianapolis chose him as the city attorney. In 1860, Harrison won the office of reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. This job, which paid well, required Harrison to print, publish, and sell all the opinions of the state courts.

When the Civil War began, Harrison first declined to join the Union Army because of family obligations. But, in 1862, Harrison decided to enlist and he became a colonel in command of a regiment of Indiana volunteers. Harrison did not see much action until 1864 when his regiment joined in General William Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Calhoun believed that Harrison saw more battles during that Georgia campaign than his grandfather did in his nearly 30 years in the Army. Harrison was a Brigadier General when the war ended.

Harrison won another term as Supreme Court reporter for Indiana in 1864, despite his military obligations. While he received offers to run for higher office, Harrison declined them until 1872, when he tried to win the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana. However, Harrison did not prevail at the state convention.

In 1876, Harrison did get the nomination after the first nominee dropped out of the race. Harrison lost to the Democratic candidate, James Williams, by about 5,000 votes.

Harrison’s strong showing in the governor’s race started to get people talking about him as a Presidential candidate in 1880. Harrison’s time had not come though. James Garfield won the Republican nomination as a dark horse choice and, ultimately, the Presidency.

In 1881, Harrison finally got a chance to shine when he won a Senate seat. Harrison did not compile a distinguished legislative record, but he was still regarded as a possible contender in the 1884 Presidential race.

But, in 1884, perennial contender James G. Blaine of Maine won the nomination. Harrison and fellow Hoosier, Postmaster General Walter Q. Gresham, ended up in a bitter feud over whom the Indiana delegation should support. This ultimately took away any chance either man had of winning nomination as President or Vice President. Blaine lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland, the first Republican to lose a Presidential election since John C. Fremont in 1856.

Back in Indiana, the Democrats had managed to gain control of the Legislature through a redistricting measure. The Indiana legislature did not reelect Harrison in 1887, choosing Democrat David Turpie by one vote.

In 1888, President Cleveland appeared to be a vulnerable incumbent. Cleveland had shepherded a tariff reduction act that was extremely unpopular in the Northern states, which were dependent upon protective tariffs for their industries.

The Republican race for the nomination in 1888 was wide open after Blaine announced he would not run.  Harrison and Ohio Senator John Sherman were the front-runners, but no one had a wide base of support.

Although Blaine was not running, it did not mean he was not working behind the scenes to pick a nominee he liked. Blaine decided that Harrison’s policies were the most in line with his, and after several ballots, Harrison won the nomination. New York banker Levi Morton was chosen as his running mate. Cleveland was renominated with a new running mate, Allen Thurman. (Vice President Thomas Hendricks had passed away after eight months on the job.)

Interest in the election was huge. The tariff was the main issue and that was causing the North and South to dig in deeply along partisan lines. It was likely that a few key swing states, such as Indiana, would be crucial.

The election had its seamy sides to it. A Republican partisan in California wrote a letter to the British minister to the United States, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, pretending to be a British subject with the name of Murchison. “Murchison” asked Sackville-West which candidate would be better for England. Sackville-West wrote back that Cleveland would be preferable. The letter was made public, stirring up a fury among Irish-Americans.

The Republicans would also be caught in a scandal known as the “Blocks of Five.” A Republican Party official instructed Indiana precinct captains to divide all undeclared voters into “blocks of five” and use an appropriate amount of money to buy their votes. It is generally believed that Harrison was ignorant of this scheme.

When the votes were all counted, Cleveland had won the most popular votes by a margin of 90,000 (48.6% to 47.8%). But, Harrison prevailed in the electoral vote by a margin of 233-168. Harrison won the crucial states of New York (36 electoral votes) and Indiana (15) by less than 1%. The vote broke along almost completely along sectional lines.

When Harrison formed his Cabinet, he made Blaine his Secretary of State and William Windom his Secretary of Treasury. Both men had held these positions while James Garfield was President, but had stepped down after Garfield’s assassination.

The Republicans in the new 51st Congress did not waste much time in trying to enact much of Harrison’s agenda. The government was running a large surplus at the time (about $100 million) and there was plenty of spending to go around. Civil War veterans pensions were extended. Tariffs were raised. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Law went into effect, the first Federal law enacted that to prohibit unfair business cartels and monopolies. Although Harrison’s Administration would not do much to enforce the act during his time in office, the Sherman Antitrust Law is the cornerstone of all antitrust law in the United States today.

John Sherman, besides the antitrust law, also gave his name to another important law dealing with the economy, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Western farmers wanted to increase the amount of silver used as legal tender because: 1) they were in debt and needed more money and 2) there was a lot of silver around in the West. Eastern financiers did not want silver in circulation for fear of it hurting the price of gold and creating inflation. Farmers did not mind inflation because their debts were not going to going up because of them.

The Silver Purchase Act required the government to buy some silver every year and issue bank certificates that could be exchanged for either gold or silver. This compromise was supposed to give Harrison and the Republicans some breathing room from a growing populist movement in the West. Ultimately, the plan would not work in any way.

Another law Harrison tried to get through Congress in 1890 was a Civil Rights Bill. Sponsored by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the bill would have allowed the Federal government to supervise any Congressional election after receiving a petition from a specified number of citizens. Southern Democrats filibustered this bill and threatened to do the same to the Silver Purchase Act. The Republicans decided that silver trumped civil rights and backed off on the legislation.

The 51st Congress became known as the Billion Dollar Congress for the amount of spending it authorized. In the 1890 off-year elections, Democrats hammered the Republicans for the excessive spending. The Republicans, who had controlled the House by a 172-159 margin, found themselves in a 236-88 hole after the 1890 election. Because of new states joining the union (North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), the Republicans did maintain a majority in the Senate.

With a hostile Congress making it impossible to accomplish anything on his domestic agenda, Harrison spent much of his final two years concentrating on foreign affairs. The United States ran into problems with Canada (and, by extension, Great Britain), Italy, and Chile.

The problem with Canada was the hot button issue of pelagic sealing. The United States had granted a company a limited license to hunt seals on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. The company was not allowed to hunt the seals in the open ocean (pelagic sealing.) Canadian sealers believed that once the seals reached international waters, they were fair game, and part of the unique Canadian right to beat up baby seals.

In the 1890s, Canada’s foreign affairs were handled by Great Britain. Harrison used the pelagic sealing dispute to show the British that the United States was not going to back down to a European power. Harrison threatened military action to protect the seals. Eventually, the Canadians backed down and agreed to arbitration. And, in 1893, the Canadians prevailed and won the right to hunt seals to their hearts’ content. (Well, almost.)

The dispute with Italy involved a lynch mob in New Orleans. In 1891, some Mafia-connected men were acquitted of the murder of a New Orleans police lieutenant. A mob, led by the mayor of New Orleans himself, killed 11 Italian-Americans, three of  them Italian nationals. (In New Orleans, there’s no better justice than mob justice.)  Italy recalled its minister from the U.S., prohibited beef imports from the U.S., and demanded an indemnity. Harrison held the line and only gave the Italians a profound apology. (Harrison believed that the Federal government had no role to play in eliminating lynchings.)

The dispute with Chile was also in 1891 when some sailors from the U.S.S. Baltimore were attacked by a mob in Valparaiso while on shore leaves. Two sailors were killed. Harrison did get Chile to apologize and pay a small indemnity ($75,000).

Harrison ended up doing much of the work of Secretary of State James Blaine. The former Maine Senator was not a hard-worker, which rankled the industrious Harrison. Further complicating matters, Blaine was suffering from kidney disease. Blaine was openly contemptuous of Harrison’s performance as President, while Harrison found Blaine to be a lazy slugabed.

In June of 1892, Blaine resigned as Secretary of State to make one final run for President. However, there was little or no support for Blaine among Republican regulars. No one wanted to dump the incumbent Harrison from the ticket. (Blaine passed away in January of 1893.)

Harrison did want to dump his Vice President, Levi Morton. Morton had done little to advance Harrison’s legislative agenda in the Senate, especially the Civil Rights Bill. So, Morton was sent packing and New York newspaper publisher Whitelaw Reid was put on the ticket.

The Democrats decided to go with former President Grover Cleveland. He had won the popular vote in both of his earlier runs, so why mess with success? Adlai Stevenson was nominated for Vice President.

1892 was a turbulent year in the United States. A strike at an Andrew Carnegie-owned steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned deadly when striking workers fired on Pinkerston agents hired as strikebreakers. Four people died in an exchange of gunfire. The Pennsylvania National Guard had to come to Homestead to restore order.

The growing populist movement among Western farmers had finally coalesced into an actual third party. The group named itself the People’s Party, but was more commonly called the Populist Party. James B. Weaver of Iowa would be its standard bearer in the Presidential Election of 1892.

The Silver Purchase Act was not having its desired effect. Nearly everyone given a greenback that they could exchange for either silver or gold, opted to take gold. This created a serious drain on gold reserves, as well as concentrating more wealth in the East.

Amidst the Presidential campaign and economic crises, Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was dying. At first doctors did not know what was causing her general weakness. Tuberculosis turned out to be the culprit. On October 25, 1892, two weeks before Election Day, Caroline Harrison passed away.

Out of respect, Cleveland ceased campaigning, so as not to take advantage of Harrison’s grief. The final days before the election were grim as Harrison faced a likely defeat to go along with his wife’s passing.

Cleveland won his rematch with Harrison. He edged him in the popular vote by about 400,000 votes nationwide. Cleveland won 277 electoral votes. Harrison won 145. Weaver won four Western states worth 22 electoral votes.

Soon after Cleveland took office, the economy collapsed. Cleveland’s economic policies were not much different from Harrison’s however. It would take the better part of four years for the economy to regain its strength.

In retirement, Harrison worked as a trustee for Purdue University. He also resumed his law practice on a limited basis. In 1896, Harrison remarried. His late wife’s niece, Mame Dinnick, was a 38-year old widow, who had long been a close family friend of both Benjamin and Caroline Harrison. Harrison’s daughter and son refused to attend the wedding of their father, accusing Mame Dinnick of carrying on an affair with their father while their mother was dying. (Calhoun does not put much stock in that accusation.) In 1897, Harrison fathered a child at the age of 63.

In 1900, Harrison traveled to The Hague to argue a border dispute for Venezuela against Great Britain. Harrison brought his new family along with him. The job was taxing. Harrison wrote nearly all of an 800-page brief for the arbitrators. Harrison and the Venezuelans lost the case.

In February of 1901, Harrison developed a cold. This turned into pneumonia, which proved fatal to him on March 13, 1901.

Benjamin Harrison’s story is one not often mentioned in history books. He is remembered more for being the last President to wear a beard. Harrison, like many politicians of the Gilded Age, owed much of his success to friends in high places. Politicans from this era are rarely judged on their ideas, but mostly on the company they kept.

Harrison was an honest man (especially by Gilded Age standards) who never had broad appeal to the rest of the United States. The nation was still not completely over the effects of the Civil War. Harrison made some effort to edge the United States into a more modern era of politics. But, it would take the next two Republican Presidents, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, to revamp the American political system.

Other stuff: Benjamin Harrison’s birthplace was also the home of William Henry Harrison at the time. The home is not there anymore, but there is a marker. Harrison’s home in Indianapolis is now a museum run by the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation. Harrison is buried next to both of his wives at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Harrison’s White House was the first to have electric lighting. In general, the Harrisons were afraid to touch any switches as they thought they would be electrocuted. They tended to leave the lights on.

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Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse

President #19, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #33

He’s very big in Paraguay

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was, by all accounts, an intelligent and honest man who made his way to the White House in the most controversial fashion of any President until George W. Bush. Despite his personal integrity, his reputation from historians has taken a beating.

Hayes is viewed as the man who gave up on the idea of Federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks in the South for a period that lasted past World War II. He accomplished little in his one term as he faced a Congress that was hostile toward him. That was just the members of his own party. The Democrats in Congress hated him more.

Hans L. Trefousse, one of the foremost experts on the Reconstruction Era, tries to do his part to rehabilitate Hayes’ image. However, Trefousse did a better job making Andrew Johnson look like a racist monster, than he does in making Rutherford Hayes look like an underappreciated Chief Executive.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born on October 4, 1822 in Delaware. Delaware, Ohio, that is. His father died before he was born. (Three presidents were born after their fathers had died: Andrew Jackson, Hayes, and Bill Clinton.) Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, helped raise young Rutherford along with his mother, Sophia.

From an early age, Sardis Birchard exposed to young Rutherford to classic works of literature and taught him Latin and Greek. Hayes graduated from Kenyon College in 1842, and later would attend Harvard Law School. Hayes returned home to Ohio and started a law practice in Cincinnati.

In 1852, Hayes married Lucy Webb, who was the love of his life. The two of them had eight children together and would be married for 37 years. Lucy had graduated from what is now Ohio Wesleyan University, and would be the first First Lady to have a college degree.

Hayes’ law practice was successful and he became well known in political circles. When the Republican Party began in 1856, Hayes joined it immediately. Already leaning toward the side of abolition, Lucy’s strong religious beliefs pushed Rutherford firmly into that camp.

When the Civil War began, Hayes signed up for the Army. Hayes took command of a group of Northern Ohio volunteers, and, after a lot of reading up on military affairs, became a respected commander in the field. In the early part of the war, Hayes saw action in West Virginia. He was wounded in a battle that was a preliminary to the bloodbath of Antietam (about 22,000 people died on one day in that battle, the most casualties on any one day in U.S. history.)

Hayes returned to the battlefield in December of 1862 and was now a Brigadier General. Another future President, William McKinley, was under Hayes’ command.

Even before Hayes left the Army, the voters of Ohio elected him to the House of Representatives. He finally took office in December of 1865. Hayes would be a strong supporter of Civil Rights and a vehement opponent of President Andrew Johnson. Hayes resigned his seat in July of 1867 to run for governor of Ohio.

Hayes barely won the election as governor, but the Democrats controlled both houses of the Ohio Legislature. This would prove to be a problem as the governor of Ohio had no veto power at the time. With little to do the first two years except give speeches and make suggestions that no one heeded, Hayes became more involved with Republican politics at the national level.

In 1870, Hayes won a second two-year term, eking out a win by a little over 7500 votes. Hayes toyed with the idea of a Senate run in 1872, but decided against it, thinking it better to retire from politics with his reputation unsullied.

Hayes could not stay away. Or, perhaps, the Ohio Republican Party could not stay away from Hayes. In 1875, Hayes ran for a third term as Governor of Ohio. He won and took a Republican majority into both houses of the Legislature with him. Hayes was now discussed as Presidential material.

For much of the American history, Ohio has been a popular place to find Presidential candidates. The state is both Midwest and East. It is both industrial and agricultural. And, it has always had a healthy number of electoral votes.

Maine Senator James Blaine was the favorite for the nomination going into the Republican Convention. Cincinnati would be the site.

Blaine was well-known, but he had his enemies within the party. The anti-Blaine forces managed to keep the “plumed knight of the Senate” (as some called Blaine) from ever gaining a majority of the delegates. On the seventh ballot, the anti-Blaine forces coalesced around Hayes and got him the nomination. William Wheeler of New York was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel Tilden for President and Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks for Vice President.

1876 was expected to be a Democratic year. Tilden was known as an honest, reform-minded candidate. The country was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis. The Republicans had held a 199-88 majority in the House in 1873. After the 1875 election, the Democrats held a 182-103 majority.

Hayes did not expect to win and there was not much he could do personally to help himself. 1876 was still a time when it was considered unseemly for candidates to personally go out and campaign. It would all be a matter of which party could find ways to get as many people to the polls. Or, in the case of the Democrats in the South, how many black voters they could keep away through intimidation or legal shenanigans.

When the results came out on Election Day, there was no clear winner. The New York Times (then a distinctly Republican leaning publication) reported the results as 184 electoral votes for Tilden and 181 for Hayes. 185 was the magic number. There was one state that had not yet been decided. It was … wait for it … Florida! (Florida had just four electoral votes in that era.)

But, the 181 total for Hayes was not entirely clear. Aside from Florida not reporting, there were conflicting returns from Louisiana and South Carolina. Also, there was one elector in Oregon that was being contested. The New York Times had already given Louisiana, South Carolina, and the lone vote from Oregon to Hayes. However, nobody knew which set of returns was correct. Tilden was going to prevail in the popular vote regardless.

In the end, all the disputed states ended up sending in TWO sets of electoral ballots. If Congress would count the Democratic votes (and not even all of them), Tilden would win. If Congress counted all the Republican votes, Hayes would win.

The Constitution stipulates that electoral votes are to be counted in front of a joint session of Congress with the President of the Senate presiding. But, there was no provision to handle a disputed set of returns. The House was in control of the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by Republicans. The President of the Senate was Republican Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, who was the President Pro Tem. (Vice President Henry Wilson had passed away in 1874.)

There were negotiations back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans about how to count the votes. In January of 1877, a joint committee recommended the establishment of special panel to look at the disputed returns. It would consist of 15 people, five from the Senate, five from the House, and five from the Supreme Court. The Senators would be three Republicans and two Democrats and the Representatives would be three Democrats and two Republicans. The Supreme Court justices would hold the balance as there would be two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, David Davis.

Davis was from Illinois. The legislature there, controlled by Democrats, tried to buy off Davis by electing him to a vacant Senate seat for Illinois. Davis responded to this by resigning his seat on the Supreme Court. The Democrats had to settle for a Republican justice, Joseph Bradley. Democrats thought Bradley was the least partisan member of the Supreme Court left to choose.

As Congress counted the votes, (I’ve watched the process on C-SPAN and it is scintillating action), when the first set of disputed results came up, Florida’s, the matter was referred to the special Electoral Commission (as it was so called). The Commission voted along partisan lines 8-7 to approve the Republican returns. This was the case in all the disputed results. The count was not finished until 4:10 a.m. on March 2, 1877, less than two full days before the new President would be inaugurated. (Congress would quickly get to work to pass a new law to handle situations like this. It took only 10 years and basically stated that whichever set of returns is approved by the governor of a state counts.)

Outgoing President Grant had Hayes secretly sworn in as President in the White House on March 3. Since March 4 was a Sunday, the public ceremony would not be until March 5. Grant did not wish to risk Democrats disrupting the swearing in or getting some sort of injunction to prevent it.

Hayes, who did not like the way the matter was handled, nevertheless accepted the result. He believed that if the Southern Democrats had not intimidated black voters and illegally suppressed the turnout, he would have won easily. But, Hayes was branded “His Fraudulency” and “Old 8 to 7” in the press.

One of the first fallouts from the election was the removal of Federal troops from Louisiana, which allowed the Democrats to reclaim the political machinery of the state. The military reconstruction of the South was over. Any hope that African Americans had in those states of achieving any semblance of equality would have to be deferred for generations.

Hayes also named a Southerner to his Cabinet. David Key of Tennessee became Postmaster General. Historians still dispute if these two events were part of a deal struck by the Republicans to allow the election of Hayes. Trefousse believes that the true victor of the 1876 election will never be known. There was too much corruption on both sides.

The first two years for Hayes were extremely rocky. Democrats wanted to hold hearings into the election results, with the possible aim of reversing the result. The Republican in charge of counting the votes in Louisiana was prosecuted for fraud. Hayes remarked that he felt that the man would not have charged with any crime if he had just said that the Democrats had won.

Hayes tried to take on the cause of civil service reform as one of his first tasks. The first Federal job Hayes went after was Collector of the Port of New York. The man in charge there was Chester Arthur, an ally of powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who wanted no part of civil service reform.

Following the recommendations of a report by a commission looking into the subject, Hayes ordered Arthur and two other Conkling allies to resign. All three men refused to resign, so Hayes suspended them. Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future President, replaced Arthur. Fewer than six months on the job, Hayes had managed to alienate himself from one of the most powerful men in his own party in Conkling.

While the tempest over the Port of New York was brewing, Hayes faced another major domestic problem: railroad strikes. In July, railroad workers throughout the country went on strike. In some areas, miners joined the strike. Riots sprung up throughout the country. Hayes called in Federal troops to restore order, and, ultimately, get the trains running again.

Before Hayes sent his annual message to Congress, he had already used Federal force to support corporate interests, but withheld Federal force to uphold civil rights. These two actions probably accounted for his recent drop in historians’ rankings of Presidents.

Rutherford and Lucy Hayes did manage to make the White House one of the livelier places in Washington for social gatherings, despite the fact that Lucy did not allow alcohol to be served in her home. She was dubbed “Lemonade Lucy.” The Hayes family were not prudes. They just did not drink alcohol.

In 1878, Argentina and Paraguay turned to Hayes to arbitrate a dispute between the two countries over the Gran Chaco region that bordered the two countries. Paraguay had been at war from 1864 through 1870 against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. The conflict was known as the War of the Triple Alliance. Paraguay suffered staggering losses in the conflict, with about 300,000 people (including civilians) killed. It is estimated that 90% of all adult males in Paraguay died in the war.

An area between two rivers, the Rio Verde and the Rio Pilcomayo was still in dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. Hayes decided to give the territory to Paraguay. The reason for this decision is still unclear. But, Paraguay was so pleased with the decision that a town was named in honor of Hayes, called Villa Hayes, and later an entire department (province) of Paraguay was named Presidente Hayes.

Hayes accomplished little else in office to overcome the controversy that surrounded his election. He had already promised before the election not to run for a second term. Hayes was a lame duck with the stain of fraud hanging over him. It was not a recipe for success.

Trefousse wants to make the point that Hayes was not a dishonest man. And, by all accounts, Hayes was one of the more honorable politicians around in one of the most corrupt eras in American politics. However, Hayes did not fully exercise all the powers of the Presidency. Perhaps he could not so because of political realities.

Hayes did leave office with the United States in better shape than he found it. The economic crisis of the Panic of 1873 had dissipated and Hayes had refused to solve the problem by simply printing more money. The United States had become a more important player on the world stage.

But, if you were a black citizen in the South, your situation would have gotten worse. The Federal government was not in the civil rights business anymore.

Hayes spent his retirement back in Ohio. He served on the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which opened when he was governor. He also spent time defending his record as President and his method of election. Hayes loved to point out that the Democratic Party did not renominate Tilden for the Presidency. (Nor would the Democrats renominate Al Gore in 2004.)

Rutherford Hayes passed away on January 17, 1893 in Fremont, Ohio, just six months after his wife Lucy passed away. His last words expressed happiness over going to rejoin her.

Overall, Rutherford Hayes was a good man who drew a bad hand as President. He was thrust into a political world seething with corruption, racial violence, and economic turmoil. Trefousse feels that Hayes did not get his due. Hayes may not have wanted to pull Federal troops from protecting blacks in the South, but, he had little choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that under Hayes much of the gains in civil rights for African Americans gained from the Civil War disappeared for about 90 years.

At least the Election of 1876 and the trauma that the country went through ensured that the United States would never have to suffer from a questionable election result ever again. Or so I thought in 1999.

Other stuff: Rutherford Hayes’ birthplace in Delaware, Ohio was demolished in the 19th Century. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio. His grave is on the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The library on site has an extensive genealogical collection. Hayes was an avid genealogist himself.

Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

President #18, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #23

Read this unconditionally

Americans have never been shy about making their military heroes Presidents. They have ranged from the great (George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt) to pretty darn good (Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower) to the quickly dead (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor).

Ulysses S. Grant was undoubtedly one of America’s greatest generals, leading the Union Army to a victory in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, the Civil War. As a President, Grant is much harder to read. Back in 2000, historians ranked him #33. But, by 2009, Grant had risen ten spots in the rankings.

What had happened to Grant’s reputation in that time to pull him out of Herbert Hoover and Millard Fillmore territory? Grant’s Presidency was rife with scandals, including one where he had to dump his Vice President when running for re-election, only to replace him with a man who was caught up in the same scandal.

Josiah Bunting III, who served in the Army and also worked at the Virginia Military Institute as well as West Point in addition to writing novels, tries to present the case that Grant’s Presidency was more than just a series of scandals. He presents Grant as a leader, who while a bit too keen to delegate work to people who were not competent or honest, but also as a strong supporter of civil rights for the newly freed slaves. Grant also wins praise from Bunting for trying (although ultimately unsuccessfully) to reform government policy toward Native Americans.

Was Grant as good of a President as he was a general? No. But was he the 19th Century’s answer to Richard Nixon? No, far from that. Grant was not a paranoid man. He was not personally corrupt. He firmly believed he was always in the right. And, he never forgot his friends. Unfortunately, Grant could have benefited from having a higher class of friends.

Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. When he was 17, his father, Jesse, managed to get him a nomination to West Point. The Congressman writing the nomination, Thomas Hamer, thought Jesse’s son bore his mother’s maiden name as his middle name. So, Hamer nominated Ulysses Simpson Grant for an appoint to the United States Military Academy. Grant decided to stick with this name.

Grant’s West Point class had only 39 graduates. Grant ranked 21st in his class. He served as a quartermaster at the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. But, world events thrust Grant into much different duty.

The border between the United States and Mexico in Texas was becoming subject of a heated dispute between the two countries. Grant joined what became known as the Army of Observation, under the command of General Zachary Taylor. This group ultimately forced the start of the Mexican War by engaging Mexican forces in a disputed territory.

Grant enjoyed serving under Taylor. He liked Taylor’s “Rough and Ready” approach. Grant believed it was best to lead soldiers not by wearing fancy dress, but rather by just getting the job done. Grant would always be known for eschewing dress uniforms when he could. Grant won plaudits for his service during the war.

When the war was over, Grant married Julia Dent in 1848. He was soon dispatched to the West Coast as the population there boomed because of the California Gold Rush. During his long absences from Julia, Grant began to develop a drinking problem. Whether or not Grant was an alcoholic cannot be determined, but, Grant would be branded throughout his life as a drunkard by his enemies.

Regardless, Grant’s drinking caused him to resign his Army commission in 1854. He returned home to Jesse and his growing family in the St. Louis area. After a succession of dead-end jobs, Grant and his family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860

And, as we should know, the Civil War began in April of 1861. Grant offered his services to the Governor of Illinois. He was named a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Then, he quickly moved up to brigadier general. In August of 1861, Grant was given command of all Union troops in Southern Illinois. When the Confederate Army took over the city of Columbus, Kentucky, Grant was ordered to retake the city.

Grant’s men engaged the Confederates across the river from Columbus in the town of Belmont, Missouri. The Union won a rousing success. Grant was supposedly the last man to leave the battlefield.

Now, the Union Army was taking aim on Confederate defenses in the Ohio Valley. In the battle for Fort Donelson, Grant faced an old friend of his Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner. Buckner realized that his men were outnumbered and sent a message asking Grant for what his conditions for surrender would be. Grant famously replied, “No terms except immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted.” From then on, many believed that U.S. Grant stood for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

Matthew Brady's iconic photo of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia

From then on, Grant’s military career skyrocketed. The names of the battles are almost like a roll call of the famous battles of the Civil War: Shiloh, Vicksburg (which ended at about the same time as Gettysburg), Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, Richmond, and, finally, Appomattox.

Grant’s victories were not for the faint of heart. He knew that numbers were on his side. Grant was denounced by his opponents as a “butcher.” However, President Lincoln firmly believed in Grant. As Lincoln reportedly said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Grant rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, the first man to hold that title since George Washington.

Despite the high casualty rates, Grant’s men were extremely loyal to him. Grant did not enjoy the death toll, but, according to Bunting, Grant was certain that he was in the right. And Grant believed in “the certainty of victory.” Grant would push forward all the time. He would make the South pay for their actions.

When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Grant no longer wished for unconditional surrender. Grant asked that Lee’s men simply surrender their arms and agree not to fight again. Lee’s men could then go home and try to rebuild their lives. Grant became General of the Army of the United States.

Lincoln had asked Grant and his wife to go with him to Ford’s Theater on that fateful April 14 of 1865. Grant declined, mostly because  Julia did not wish to spend a night with Mary Todd Lincoln. After Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the role of bringing the country back together.

The next four years would nearly ruin the nation again. Johnson wished to immediately bring the Southern States back into the Union with full voting rights in Congress. Johnson, although a firmly believer in abolition, had no desire to see the freed slaves attain any other basic civil rights. Republicans in Congress resisted Johnson at every turn. The Reconstruction of the United States would not be accomplished only by the powers of persuasion. It would take the United States Army.

Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to anyone born on United States soil. Grant supported it. Johnson wished to speak out against it, along with many other Radical Republican measures in Congress on a speaking tour through the Midwest by train. Grant came along for moral support, but quickly tried to distance himself from Johnson, who was often heckled by crowds, and Johnson would respond in kind.

In 1868, matters between Congress and President Johnson came to a head with the Tenure of Office Act. This act made it illegal for the President to remove from office without Congressional approval. Johnson wished to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who was leaking information to the Radicals) and replace him with Grant. At first, Grant accepted the job, but, realizing that he had a chance to become President later in the year, declined. Eventually, Stanton was replaced. The House impeached Johnson and he escaped conviction by one vote.

The Presidential Election of 1868 was perfectly set up for Ulysses Grant. No one else in the country had the stature to take over.  Grant won the nomination without any opposition. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax was named as Grant’s running mate.

The Democrats nominated former New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Seymour was no match for the hugely popular Grant. With much of the white Democratic vote in the South suppressed by the Army, Grant won by a 214-80 margin in the Electoral Vote and had 52.7% of the popular vote.

While everyone knew of Grant’s military heroics, very little was known about how he would govern. Not many people seemed to care too much about that at the time.

Grant would not reveal the names of his choices for Cabinet posts until he forwarded them on to the Senate. Some of his choices were curious. For example, he chose an Ohio friend, Elihu Washburne for Secretary of State. But, Washburne resigned the post after 12 days to become Minister to France. Grant felt that Washburne would be considered a more prestigious emissary with “former Secretary of State” on his resumé. Hamilton Fish would replace Washburne for the next eight years.

Grant’s military chief of staff, John Rawlins, was supposed to head up the Army in the Southwest, but Rawlins told Grant that he would rather be Secretary of War. And Rawlins got the job. But, he died in September of 1869 of tuberculosis.

A quiet, but wealthy campaign contributor from Philadelphia, Adolph Borie, became Secretary of the Navy. However, Borie did not know anything about naval affairs. Grant just thought he would like the job. Borie resigned the position in June of 1869.

Grant also wanted to pick financier Alexander Stewart to be Secretary of the Treasury. However, Stewart’s vast wealth and many entanglements with Federal funds, made the Senate balk at his nomination. Grant withdrew Stewart and nominated George Boutwell, one of the House managers for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

Soon after taking office, Grant decided to tackle the issue of the national debt, which had ballooned to nearly $3 billion (about $46 trillion in today’s money, almost four times today’s national debt.) Grant had Congress pass a law requiring that the debt be repaid with gold and not paper money. Grant wished to avoid inflation at all costs.

The increased demand for gold led two New York speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, to try to corner the gold market. With inside knowledge from one of Grant’s brothers-in-law, the two men persuaded the Treasury to delay public sales of gold. Gould would buy large sums of gold, which served to drive up the price. The idea would be that when people tried to redeem their greenbacks for gold, they would reap even more money. The whole plan fell apart though when the Treasury sold a large amount of gold earlier than expected, which sent prices plummeting. Many people were ruined, although Gould and Fisk were not, and neither faced any criminal prosecution.

Grant’s response to this crisis gave people the impression that he was in the pocket of Wall Street, and likely in over his head in the job of President. Scandals would be a constant presence during Grant’s Administration.

Besides the national debt, one of the major crises for Grant was dealing with the problem of how to bring back the Southern states into the Union. Although the slaves were free, Southerners showed no inclination of allowing the freed slaves to vote.  Methods ranging from legal chicanery (such as literacy tests) to blatant violence (from groups like the Ku Klux Klan) were employed to keep African-Americans from voting.

Grant was not afraid to use Federal force to maintain order and uphold civil rights. Under Grant’s watch, the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted the franchise to all adult male citizens regardless of race, was adopted. Grant also created the Justice Department, headed by the Attorney General, to enforce civil rights laws. Prior to 1871, the Attorney General was mostly a glorified White House counsel. Grant made the position into one of the most powerful jobs in the country. Nevertheless, Grant’s desire to use Federal force to enforce black voting rights in the South was often more of a political calculation than a moral one.  Bunting admits that Grant would time Federal activities in the South to help with elections in various parts of the country.

Toward the end of Grant’s first term, a major scandal shook up his Administration. It would be known as the Credit Mobilier Scandal. Credit Mobilier was a construction company set up by the Union Pacific railway. Several members of Congress had taken bribes, usually in the form of stock, to give the Union Pacific favorable votes in Congress. Vice President Colfax was caught up in the scandal and dropped from the ticket in 1872.

The Democrats did not run an opponent against Grant in 1872. Instead, an odd coalition of government reformers who were opposed to the rampant use of political patronage jobs, as well as Northerners who objected to the continuation of military Reconstruction in the South, formed a group called the Liberal Republicans. They nominated newspaper publisher Horace Greeley.

Greeley had never held elective office before. His campaign never got very far as he proved to be a rather unusual character. He always wore a long coat and carried an umbrella regardless of the weather.

Grant had little trouble winning another term. He won with 286 electoral votes and 55.6% of the popular vote. Soon after the election, Greeley’s wife died. Bereft after her passing, Greeley soon died as well, leaving his 66 pledged electors to vote for whomever they wanted. (For those not scoring at home, here is how the voting went.)

The next four years for Grant would bring about even more scandal. His new Vice President, Henry Wilson, turned out to also be involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal. However, he passed away in 1874, before any final determination of his complicity.

In 1873, Congress passed a law doubling the President’s salary to $50,000. That did not bother people. What bothered people was that Congress voted itself a raise and made it retroactive for two years. And members of Congress would get a $5,000 bonus on top of that. Public opposition forced the repeal of this pay raise (but not Grant’s) in 1874.

Grant’s personal secretary had to resign in connection in a tax evasion scheme involving distillers. The Secretary of War extorted money to allow a trading post to stay open. The Attorney General took a bribe to stop the prosecution of a case against a customs house.

Adding to all this was a major financial crisis: the Panic of 1873. This crisis came about because of speculation in the railroad industry. Those stocks became over-valued and then collapsed in price. Banks began to fail. Unemployment shot up. Wages declined. Congress wanted to relieve the credit crisis by allowing more greenbacks into circulation. But, Grant vetoed the measure, keeping in line with his strong belief in the gold standard, as well as a fear of inflation. Although it did take time (until 1879 when Grant was out of office), the economy did right itself.

It might seem that Grant did little right. Bunting does not believe that to be the case. He believes that the domestic ills were the result of Grant’s military background and his belief that he could delegate authority correctly.

Bunting also gives Grant credit for foreign policy successes. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish negotiated a major treaty with Great Britain over a dispute that originally centered on a claim that the United States had against the British for helping the Confederate Navy build a steamer called the Alabama. Fish initially received monetary remuneration from Britain, but Senate Foreign Relations Chair Charles Sumner declared that to be inadequate. Sumner believed the Alabama extended the Civil War for two years. Sumner wanted Canada as payback.

Fish ultimately got the British (and Sumner) to come to an agreement to have the matter sent to binding arbitration. Fish would also negotiate a sticky border dispute between the U.S. and Canada in the newly acquired Alaska Territory.

Bunting makes a case that Grant had the most humane policy toward Native Americans of any President. Grant wanted to smooth relations between the various Native American nations and the United States. He wanted to establish schools. He appointed Native Americans to administer the programs. Grant wanted to complete Jefferson’s dream of making the original inhabitants of the United States Americans on equal standing with those who came later.

Sadly, this was not to be. Toward the end of Grant’s administration in 1876, when an Army Cavalry regiment under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was wiped out by a Lakota-Cheyenne force at the Little Bighorn River. Public opinion no longer favored giving the Native Americans any more aid.

After leaving the White House, Ulysses and Julia Grant took a tour of Europe that lasted over two years. They were celebrities wherever they went, but, to Grant’s disappointment, he was mostly honored as a general, not a President. He came back to the United States hoping to reenter the political fray in 1880 as a candidate for President.

The Republican Convention could not decide between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. James Garfield was nominated as a compromise choice. Grant had to leave the arena.

Unfortunately, a bad investment left Grant nearly penniless. Wealthy benefactors helped out as much as they could. Around this time, Grant developed a sharp pain in his throat. It turned out to be throat cancer.

With little time to live, Grant opted to sign with a publisher to write his memoirs. Despite being in tremendous pain, Grant produced a two-volume work. He finished writing the manuscript on July 18, 1885. He died on July 23, 1885 in Mount McGregor, New York. (Grant is the only President known to have died from cancer.) The memoirs earned his estate over $450,000 in royalties.

Bunting’s book does not make the most persuasive case that Grant was anything but a mediocre to terrible President. Grant should be credited for his strong stance on civil rights and his relatively enlightened attitude toward Native Americans. Ulysses S. Grant as President probably seemed like a good idea at the time for the United States. But, the United States did not have the brilliant military strategist as President. Instead, the country got the ne’er-do-well who could not hold a job before the Civil War. We all have some job that we are best suited for. For Ulysses S. Grant, that job was in the military, not in civilian life.

Other stuff: Grant was 46 years old at the time of his inauguration, making him the youngest man to hold the office at the time. Vice President Schuyler Colfax was just 45.

Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio is open to visitors. It is operated by the Ohio Historical Society. Grant and his wife Julia are entombed at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City at 122nd and Riverside. It is familiarly called Grant’s Tomb. It is operated by the National Park Service.

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Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchincloss

President #26, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #4

Bullfeathers!!!!

There is no person whose has been President who led a life that seems like it came out of a work of fiction more than Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed apropos that a novelist, Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justin among many other titles) wrote this biography of a larger than life figure.

Theodore Roosevelt was a President that America seemed to need. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Presidency had passed through the hands of men who ranged from highly capable to grossly incompetent. Even a Civil War hero like Ulysses Grant could not elevate the office to the same stature that it had in Lincoln’s time.

It took a man, born of privilege, but who still took nothing for granted in life, to bring the United States fully up to the level of a world power on par with the British and French. It took a man who could bring together upper crust New Yorkers and rough-edged Westerners into a cohesive fighting unit, for one day of military success. A triumph that would propel him to the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. His father, also named Theodore (as an adult, President Theodore Roosevelt did not use the “Junior” suffix), did not serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, instead buying a replacement. This was a source of great embarrassment to young Theodore, who felt his father, whom he idolized, displayed cowardice.

As a child, Roosevelt was plagued with debilitating asthma attacks. There was no effective treatment for that condition at that time, aside from just being propped up in a chair. The condition made it difficult for Roosevelt to attend school on a regular basis.

In an effort to improve his physical condition, young Theodore Roosevelt took up boxing. This led to a lifelong interest in physical fitness, as well as a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt called this “the vigorous life.”

Through home schooling, Roosevelt was able to develop a sufficient background to get himself admitted to Harvard in 1876. He proved to be an excellent student, devouring knowledge in seemingly every field. Roosevelt had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and was also well-versed in geography, the natural sciences, and history. After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt would write a book, the Naval War of 1812.

In 1878, while at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt’s father passed away at age 47 from a form of colon cancer. Young Theodore missed seeing his father before he passed away, and always regretted it. As it would turn out, tragedy would stalk him much of his life. It is amazing that he was able to overcome it.

Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Lee in 1880 and seemed to be a happy couple. Roosevelt had carefully picked out his wife, wanting only a woman of the finest breeding, as well as one who was a virgin. He was strongly opposed to sex outside of a marriage. However, he was a big supporter of sex in marriage and believed it was every person’s duty to have as many children as possible.

Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a daughter, also named Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days later, the new mother passed away from kidney failure. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother passed away as well as from typhoid fever. Roosevelt never spoke about his first wife to anyone ever again, even to his daughter.

In response to these tragedies, Roosevelt decided not to run for reelection to the New York State Assembly (where he had begun to build his resume as a reformer) and moved out to his ranch, Elk Horn, in the Dakota Territory. He spent time living a life that would seem to be too fantastic for even a Hollywood Western.  Roosevelt caught a group of thieves and marched them back through the wilderness for a week until he could turn them over to the nearest law enforcement authority.

Roosevelt returned to the political arena later in 1884, making an appearance at the Republican National Convention. He held his nose and endorsed James Blaine for the nomination, even though he could not stand Blaine’s policies. Roosevelt felt that politically, he could not go out on a limb just yet.

In 1886, Roosevelt had his ups and downs. He ran for mayor of New York, but lost. But, he also remarried. Edith Carow was a childhood acquaintance of Roosevelt. The two married in London. They would have five children together.

Roosevelt then served in a series of political jobs that burnished his image as a reformer. He also was a member of the Federal Civil Service Commission from 1888 through 1895. He then moved on to become the Police Commissioner of New York. Roosevelt would walk the beats of officers and often find them asleep. He completely revamped the police force. (It is not known if alarm clocks were part of the revamping.)

The election of William McKinley as President in 1896 would give Roosevelt his chance to shine. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy, John T. Long, was getting on in years and not an active manager of the department. Roosevelt took this opportunity to push across a plan to improve the Navy. He knew that a war with Spain over Cuba was likely. Roosevelt, when Long was on vacation, ordered the Pacific fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippines in preparation for the war. When war was declared, the Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, immediately scored a major victory over the Spanish fleet and kept other European powers from joining the fray.

Roosevelt did not want to sit out of the fighting in the Spanish-American War. So, he managed to get the Army to let him create his regiment, which would be known as the Rough Riders. The unit was a mixture of Western cowboys and wealthy New York scions. Although they trained to fight on horseback, they could not bring the horses to Cuba.

In what turned out to be the single biggest ground action of the war, Roosevelt led his men in a charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. Going up against heavy Spanish fire, Roosevelt and his men captured the hill. And, in turn, captured the imagination of the American public.

Roosevelt knew that malaria was an even bigger enemy than the Spanish. He quickly got his men sent back to the United States. Roosevelt came back and was elected governor of New York later in the year. Two years later, Roosevelt was elected Vice-President alongside McKinley. And on September 13, 1901, McKinley died from his gunshot wound seven days earlier. At age 42, Roosevelt was now the youngest President in American history. In the words of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a conservative Republican, “that damned cowboy is in the White House.”

After five years of solid, although perhaps not awe-inspiring, leadership from McKinley, America now had a dynamic man in the White House who wanted to get things done. And, he would do so.

Roosevelt soon faced a major strike by coal miners. Labor relations at this time were summed up by one coal corporation executive, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” Roosevelt ended up threatening to have the Army to operate the mines if a settlement could not be reached.  The mine operators agreed to binding arbitration.

The hot button political issue of Roosevelt’s time was the influence of corporations. Antitrust laws were routinely skirted by railroads, oil companies, and financiers. Roosevelt decided to go after one trust, known as the Northern Securities Company. It was a holding company that controlled two railways (the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific) along with J.P. Morgan’s investment house. The company had a value, in 1902 dollars of $400 million. That would be about $9.5 billion today.

Roosevelt had the Justice Department prosecute Northern Securities for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan was outraged. He felt that Roosevelt should have just negotiated with him personally. Roosevelt was having none of that.

Ultimately, the government prevailed in the Supreme Court, although Roosevelt did not get the broad interpretation of the Sherman Act that he wanted. Nevertheless, the days of corporate mergers on a grand scale were over. So says, the guy who has a checking account at a bank that is owned by the House of Morgan. Roosevelt would pick up the nickname “The Trust Buster.”

In 1903, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to Colombia to negotiate a treaty that would allow the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Colombian Senate would not ratify the deal, upsetting Roosevelt.

Around this same time, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla was still trying to push the idea of a Panama Canal in the United States. But without Colombia’s cooperation, the United States and Bunau-Varilla had to take a different approach. So, an independence movement in Panama sprung up. The United States backed the Panamanians with a naval force. The Republic of Panama came into existence on November 3, 1903. Bunau-Varilla offered himself up to the Panamanians to serve as their minister to the United States. On November 6, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal.

Construction on the canal would begin in 1907. Roosevelt would become the first sitting President to leave the United States when he made a visit to the site. In his usual style, he asked to operate a large steam shovel to help do some excavation. The Panama Canal would not open until 1914.

Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904. Prior to that time, no Vice President who had assumed the Presidency because of a death had been elected. Usually, the former VPs were not even considered. Roosevelt was different. He had become the most popular man in the country.

The Democrats had little to offer in opposition to Roosevelt. New York Appellate Judge Alton Parker was given the unenviable task of taking on Roosevelt. It was no contest. Roosevelt won with 56% of the vote and 336 electoral votes. Upon his election, Roosevelt pledged to not run for another term in office. That statement would come back to haunt him.

In his one full term, Roosevelt was still a whirlwind of activity. In 1905, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. For his efforts, Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1906, Roosevelt had the United States participate in a multinational conference in Algeciras, Spain to sort out how the European colonies in North Africa would be governed. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, made a personal appeal to Roosevelt to help reduce tensions. The conference only ended up delaying the onset of World War I.

Some of the territories that the United States occupied after the war with Spain were granted independence or autonomy in Roosevelt’s time, in particular, Cuba. However, the Philippines remained a troublesome spot. A bloody insurgency, which the United States tried to stem with often brutal methods, persisted throughout Roosevelt’s Administration.

Roosevelt also oversaw a major buildup in American naval forces. To demonstrate this, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of newly constructed battleships (“The Great White Fleet”) to take an around the world journey to show that America was now a world power on a par with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan.

On the domestic front, Roosevelt brought the issue of conservation to the forefront. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Roosevelt’s attitude toward forests was that they were a resource that could be managed and preserved.

In response to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the food industry (even if that was not Sinclair’s main point in writing the book), Roosevelt pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate the industry.

Roosevelt had pushed the Republican Party farther to the left than many in the party felt comfortable with. However, Roosevelt’s enormous popularity made it hard to stop him.

When Roosevelt left office in 1908, he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt and Taft were good friends and the former hoped the latter would further extend his policies. But, William Taft was not Theodore Roosevelt. He was far more conservative. Friction between the two men began almost as soon as the election of 1908 was over.

Roosevelt departed the political scene for a period. He went on safari in Africa. He toured Europe. He thought he would be happy being a respected world figure.

But, it was not enough. By 1912, Roosevelt had completely broken with Taft and decided to run against his successor for the Republican nomination. However, Roosevelt made his decision too late. Taft was able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt would not quit. His supporters bolted the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.

During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed down by the papers that Roosevelt had in his jacket to use for a speech. Despite his wound, Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech. During the speech, Roosevelt said “it takes more than that [a bullet] to kill a bull moose.” And so, Roosevelt’s supporters became known as the Bull Moose Party. (The bullet was not removed from Roosevelt’s body, but he had to shut down his campaign for the final few weeks.)

The split in the Republican Party handed the 1912 election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s 27.4% of the popular vote was the best showing by a third party candidate in the 20th Century. Wilson was everything Roosevelt was not. Wilson was not an advocate of the “vigorous life.” Wilson was dour. Wilson worked in academia. Roosevelt was a man of action. He fought in a war. He inspired men to do great things. Roosevelt never respected Wilson.

With politics closed off to him, Roosevelt went on another journey. He led an expedition to explore a Brazilian river called The River of Doubt (it’s now called Rio Roosevelt.) During the expedition, Roosevelt almost died from an infection in one of his legs. His health would never be good again after the trip.

When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt cajoled Wilson into getting America involved on the side of the Allies. He could not tolerate Wilson’s cautious plan of neutrality. Once the United States finally did enter the war in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson if he could form his own unit like he did in the Spanish-American War. Wilson declined the offer. Wilson did not want to run the risk of having someone like Roosevelt criticizing him in the field. Also, Wilson could tell that Roosevelt was not in the best of health.

Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC

Some of Roosevelt’s sons fought in the war. His youngest son, Quentin, served as a pilot and died when he was shot down behind German lines. Roosevelt was crushed both emotionally and physically by this.

Roosevelt still hoped to run for the White House one more time in 1920. But, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of a heart attack. His health had been compromised by rheumatism, malaria, and the leg infection he picked up in Brazil. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to be President, died at the age of 60.

It is hard not to find a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His life is so rich that historians constantly write about him. If Theodore Roosevelt lived today, there would probably be a “Facts of Theodore Roosevelt” website along the lines of “Chuck Norris Facts.”

Auchincloss starts off his biography of Roosevelt by trying to immediately present him as a flawed individual. This serves to make Roosevelt’s life seem even more remarkable because you realize that he was just a regular person like each one of us. Auchincloss has a portrait of Roosevelt that is respectful, not fantastic.

Theodore Roosevelt, more so than any other President, transformed the office of President. He transformed the nation. Was he a perfect man? No, but none of us are.

For nearly all of us, Theodore Roosevelt is almost a mythical figure. And he very well may have been the last President to achieve that status.

Other stuff: There is a Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in the area where he had his ranch. There is a Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC. Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, is a National Historic Site. Roosevelt is buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York. Roosevelt’s birth place is a National Historic Site.

Since Roosevelt passed away in 1919, the only President to die of natural causes who was younger than Roosevelt (60 years and 71 days) was Warren Harding, who was 57 years and 273 days old, when he passed away in 1923.

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George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali

President #41, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #18

In the name of the father …

George Herbert Walker Bush (not that anybody called him that when he was President except when he was sworn in) did not have an easy act to follow, succeeding one of America’s most popular Chief Executives in Ronald Reagan. He came into office in a time when the entire post World War II world was changing in incredible ways. There were economic problems. And there was a war to be fought (but was it to be won?)

At one point during his Presidency, George Bush had an approval rating of 88 percent according to a Gallup Poll. And when he ran for reelection, few people were surprised that Bill Clinton soundly defeated him.

Timothy Naftali, who was written about U.S.-Soviet relations, and now serves as the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, has the unenviable job of trying to figure out just where George Bush fit into the grand scheme of the rapidly changing world from 1989 through 1993. It is a difficult job to put a living figure just 16 years out of office with a far more famous son; but, I enjoyed Naftali’s presentation. He managed to distill the life of a man with a long resume and a Presidency filled with events of great import into an interesting narrative. You can see how George H. W. Bush (he dropped the initials before going into politics and then added them back to his name after George W. Bush became President in 2001) fits into the post Cold War world.

I did notice though it is impossible to write about George H.W. Bush without writing about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.  Much of George H.W. Bush’s life is circumscribed by his predecessor and his son. Naftali runs into this problem too. The last chapter of the book is more about Bush 43 than Bush 41 it seems.

George Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, the son of Prescott and Dorothy Bush. The Bush family moved to Connecticut when George was quite young. Prescott Bush was a successful businessman and would also go on to serve 11 years in the U.S. Senate.

Like his father, George Bush enrolled at Yale. However, World War II got in the way. Bush postponed his entrance into Yale to become a naval aviator, a feat he achieved just before turning 19. In 1944, Bush’s plane was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft guns. All of the crew except for Bush perished. Bush was able to parachute to safety.

With the war nearing its end, Bush returned to Yale. He married Barbara Pierce in January of 1945. Bush captained a Yale baseball team that made it to College World Series. He and Barbara produced six children, some of whom went on to some renown (but that’s for a later post.)

It was a tradition in the Bush family for the men to go out on their own and not to rely on their father’s wealth. So, after graduating from Yale, the Bush family headed for Texas. George Bush started an oil drilling business, along with some friends from Yale. It proved to be quite successful and Bush became a millionaire in his own right.

Like his father, George Bush began to show an interest in politics. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for a seat in the Senate against Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Bush decided to ally himself with Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. This strategy raised Bush’s profile nationally, but did not help him in the election. Yarborough won with 56% of the vote.

Two years later, Bush opted to run for a House seat and won. He became the first Republican to represent a Houston district, serving two terms. In 1968, Bush took aim at Yarborough’s Senate seat. However, Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Bush would lose to Bentsen.

Bush was not through with politics. Richard Nixon rewarded Bush for his efforts in Texas by naming him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. Two years later, Bush had an even more difficult job. He was named Chairman of the Republican National Committee as the Watergate crisis was coming to a boil. Bush, as was his nature, stayed loyal to Nixon as long as he could, but even he realized that the longer Nixon stayed in office, the worse off the Republican Party would be.

New President Gerald Ford decided to give Bush a less depressing assignment. In 1974, Ford appointed Bush as the United States Representative to China. (The two nations had not established formal diplomatic relations.) Bush had hoped to be named Ford’s Vice President (and he also had hoped that Nixon would have added him to the ticket in 1972), but that was not to be. Nelson Rockefeller was appointed to the position.

Bush worked in China for a little over a year, but was brought back to the United States to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, which was then under heavy fire after a series of Senate hearings revealed a pattern of illegal or unwarranted activities done by the agency. Bush thought this job would finish him off politically as there was too much baggage attached to it. But, Bush did not want to appear to be disloyal to the President, fearing that it would hurt his chances to run with Ford in 1976.

As it turned out, Ford chose Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976, but lost anyway to Jimmy Carter. Bush offered to remain on as CIA director under Carter, but the new President chose Admiral Stansfield Turner for the job. George Bush was seemingly gone from public view.

Or was he? Bush decided to make a run at the White House in 1980. He adopted Carter’s model and announced early, in 1978. He started organizing in Iowa before the presumptive nominee, Reagan, had made much headway there.  The move paid off and Bush surprised many pundits by winning in Iowa. As Bush proclaimed, he had “the Big Mo!”

However, it all fell apart quickly in the rest of the 1980 campaign. In New Hampshire, Bush got into a situation where he refused to debate all of the Republican contenders, except for Reagan. So, at a debate when the other candidates showed up (Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connolly, Phil Crane, and Bob Dole),  Bush wouldn’t speak. And when Reagan began to speak, the moderator ordered the microphones cut. Reagan then famously declared, “Mr. Green [the moderator] I paid for this microphone!”

Actually, Reagan hadn’t paid for the microphone. But, it certainly looked like he did. Bush looked meek compared to the forceful Reagan. Reagan won in New Hampshire and cruised to the nomination.

When it came time to pick a nominee for Vice President, Reagan’s first choice was going to be former President Gerald Ford. But, Ford wanted to have unprecedented latitude for someone in the job. Ultimately, both Reagan and Ford realized the idea was unworkable. So, Reagan went for the safe choice, George Bush.

However, there were a few problems. For starters, the two men weren’t close. And during the campaign, Bush had referred to Reagan’s supply side economic plan for the United State as “voodoo economics.” However, Bush showed himself quite adaptable to what the top of the ticket wanted. The 1980 election would be described as “not close.”

As Vice President, Bush quickly had a chance to show that he was up to the job. On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. In the confusion that ensued, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that he was in charge. Except Haig wasn’t. Legally, Reagan was still in charge. But, it was Bush who appeared on TV screens reassuring the public. Bush also declined to use the same privileges (such as special entrances to the White House) that the President was entitled to.

As Reagan recuperated, he began to include Bush in more policy-making decisions. Reagan and Bush won reelection in 1984 in a landslide.

Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, a scandal began to brew. The complex Iran-Contra Scandal would be one of the major blemishes on Reagan’s record. The convoluted plan involved the U.S. government attempting to gain leverage with Hezbollah groups holding American hostages in Lebanon. To accomplish this, the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, through an Israeli intermediary. Then, the plan was changed to sell the arms directly to Iran, but siphon off some of the money to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

However, it was against the law to give money to the Contras. Nevertheless, the plan was approved. Hezbollah released some hostages, but took more to replace them. It was a bit of a mess. Only two people, National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North, were tried in court in connection with this affair. Although both men were initially convicted, their verdicts were overturned for differing reasons.

Although Bush served on the National Security Council, he somehow managed to avoid any involvement (at least that has been shown to date) in the matter. Whether or not Bush agreed with the aims of the plan is still debated.

1988 would be George Bush’s year. He was the leading candidate for the nomination to replace Reagan. However, no sitting Vice President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Bush’s major opponent would be Robert Dole.  However, television evangelist Pat Robertson also entered the race, changing the dynamic, making the evangelical vote more important.

Dole prevailed in the Iowa caucuses, but Bush came back to win in New Hampshire. After that, it was mostly smooth sailing. On May 12, 1988, Reagan endorsed Bush for the Presidency.

Bush went to the Republican Convention needing to pick a running mate. He settled on Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.  The announcement was far from smooth. Quayle was at the back of a large crowd when the announcement was made and came charging up on to the stage with a great deal of exuberance. However, Bush’s team hadn’t completely vetted Quayle. Questions about Quayle’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam and seeming lack of experience would dog the campaign until Election Day.

During his acceptance speech, Bush decided to appeal to the conservative base of the party when describing how he would handle the rapidly increasing budget deficit. He said, “Read my lips, no more taxes.” It would be a catch phrase that would haunt Bush for his whole administration.

The general election campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was decidedly unpleasant. Dukakis, who had started with a huge lead in the polls, quickly frittered it away, mostly by being himself. That is, he was an incredibly dull candidate who managed to make Bush look charismatic.

Bush’s campaign also continued to hit at Dukakis on issues such as prisoner furloughs (the linked ad was not directly paid for by Bush’s campaign), and whether or not Massachusetts school children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The televised debates involved enlightened questions such as this one.

Dukakis seemed fortunate to win 45.6% of the vote and 111 electoral votes (10 states and the District of Columbia.) Bush was finally able to put the job he always wanted on his resume.

Upon taking office, Bush inherited a major financial crisis. The savings and loan industry, which had been deregulated to some extent in the early 1980s, was facing massive amounts of failures. The S&L’s were allowed to invest in even riskier real estate dealings (they previously had been limited to financing residential property almost exclusively) and other questionable financial practices. The whole industry was on the brink of collapse, as they had to offer higher and higher interest rates to investors, while being unable to raise interest rates to lenders. It would require $161 billion from the Federal Government to clean up the situation.

The S&L bailout only made the budget deficit problem worse. Democrats and moderate Republicans hoped to put into place a package of limited tax increases along with budget cuts.  But, Bush refused to go along with any new taxes because of his campaign pledge. As has been the norm in the American history, the problem was deferred to a later date.

Some issues could not be put off. Bush’s National Security Team, with Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, in charge wanted to thoroughly study the changes going on in the Soviet Union before making a commitment to a new policy. But, there was no time for a study. The Iron Curtain fell apart in a matter of months.

Poland’s Communist leaders legalized the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in February of 1989. After a brief power sharing agreement, the Communists faded away. Yugoslavia began to split apart along on ethnic lines, although this would prove to be far from a peaceful process. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pulled away from the Soviet Union.

The biggest change was in Germany. East Germany, which suffered under one of the most oppressive Communist governments, collapsed in October of 1989. The Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of Communism, came down. As the rest of the Soviet satellite states sloughed off Communism, so too did the Soviet Union. It broke apart (although some hard-liners tried one last coup for old time’s sake) into independent republics.

Bush was restrained in his initial public statements about the events in Europe. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush would say. It seemed odd when the primary foreign policy goal of the United States, particularly Bush’s predecessor, had been met.

However, not all went smoothly in the world of foreign affairs. While Communism in Europe passed away, Communism in China persisted. Demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in May of 1989 were suppressed by the military. The death toll was in the thousands, the exact total never known. Bush sent Scowcroft to Beijing for secret talks to ask for leniency for the protesters. The United States had no leverage though and could do little but complain.

Bush ordered U.S. troops into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega, the leader of the nation, so he could be tried in the United States for drug trafficking. Operation Just Cause ultimately restored some semblance of order in a country that was once of the strongest allies of the United States.

On August 1, 1990, the Bush Presidency faced its biggest crisis. Iraqi forces invaded and occupied the nation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein declared that he had annexed Kuwait as part of Iraq. Suddenly, the entire Persian Gulf region was in danger from Saddam’s forces.

At first, the United States sent in forces to Saudi Arabia to help protect the oil-rich nation. This was Operation Desert Shield. Delicate diplomacy in the UN was able to expand the forces in the Gulf Region and give it a UN blessing. Congress approved a joint resolution authorizing the use of force.

On January 17, 1991, Desert Shield became Desert Storm. The Iraqi forces were quickly driven from Kuwait, and they retreated back into Iraq. Bush and his generals faced the decision on whether to continue the battle into Iraq. The decision was to stop. The belief was that a prolonged war in the Persian Gulf was something that the country was not prepared for. (Similarly, I’m not prepared to write about this at length either. Because it would take several thousand more words. And I would get depressed.)

After the success of Desert Storm, Bush soared in his approval ratings. A calamitous drop would soon follow. As Naftali puts it, Bush’s support was wide, but it was not deep. By the time of the election, Bush’s unfavorable ratings were higher than his favorable ones.

Bush’s downfall would be the economy. Despite his pledge of no new taxes, Bush was forced to approve an increase in the income tax and the capital gains tax.  Unemployment went up to 7.8%. Conservative Republicans felt betrayed. They did not believe that Bush was another Reagan. Bush’s approval ratings went on a sharp decline.

During the 1992 campaign, Bush faced a primary challenge in New Hampshire from conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan. Bush won in New Hampshire; but, Buchanan picked up a surprisingly high 37% of the vote. This forced Bush to move farther to the right, a place he was not comfortable.

Further complicating matters was the addition of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot mounted a campaign based on a balanced Federal budget and an opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Perot said he would run for President if volunteers could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states.

The Democrats were going to nominate Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Despite admitted extramarital affairs and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam, Clinton pushed on ahead to seize the nomination easily.

The three-horse race for a while turned into a two-horse race when Perot dropped out, citing interference from the Bush campaign, even accusing Bush’s people of trying to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Perot would rejoin the race a week later, but now was more or less branded as a flake.

The campaign between Bush and Clinton was quite a contrast. Clinton was the first Baby Boom generation candidate. He had far more charisma than the dour Dukakis of 1988. Also, Clinton was not nearly as liberal as Dukakis, making him a much more palatable choice to a good swath of the country. Bush seemed to be older and out of touch. Clinton won the election by a wide margin in the Electoral College (370-168), although Perot’s participation kept Clinton at just 43% of the popular vote.

Soon after his electoral defeat, Bush’s mother, Dorothy, died at the age of ninety-one. As Bush left office, he gave pardons to many of the principals in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Poindexter, North, and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. George and Barbara Bush retired to Houston, where the home they hoped to have built for them after he left office in 1993 was not yet finished.

Bush went on speaking tours. One such tour in 1993 took him to Kuwait, where it turned out that the local authorities had foiled a plot by Iraqi operatives to assassinate the former president. This event would be remembered by Bush’s son, George W. Bush.

The Bush family would be heard from again. It would take just eight years.

(Insert dramatic music and pause to create “To be continued…” effect like they do on TV.)

Other stuff: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. Note that they don’t use any initials in the name.

George H.W. Bush is the only father of a President who saw his son be inaugurated. John Adams was not able to see John Quincy Adams take the oath of office in 1825 because of his advanced age (89).

The Navy’s most recently commissioned aircraft carrier is called the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. The principal airport in Houston is called George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

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Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.

Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.

The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.

Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and  gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.

After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.

Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.

Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.

Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.

While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone  had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)

The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront.  Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.

Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before  noon.

Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.

The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877.  In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.

Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.

During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.

Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.

On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.

Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.

History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.

Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.

Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)

Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.

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Arthur being sworn in

The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.

Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.

Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.

Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.

Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.

Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.

Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.

Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.

In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….

Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.

In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)

During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.

In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.

However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)

Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)

It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”

Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.

Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.