Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

hoover

President #31, C-SPAN Historians ranking #34

The Pac-10 goes to the White House and is not Invited Back

Herbert Hoover seemingly had everything you would want from a President. He was well-educated, with a degree in geology from Stanford. He had traveled the world. He was a successful businessman. He showed he could organize people all over the world to ward off famine.

And when he became President, he was awful. Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis (that was not his fault), Hoover, in crude test pilot/astronaut speech, screwed the pooch. Whatever Hoover had accomplished before in life, was forgotten under the weight of massive unemployment and a shrinking economy,

William E. Leuchtenburg, who has written extensively on the history of the Great Depression, does not paint a sympathetic portrait of Hoover. Instead, Hoover comes across as  vainglorious, although tempered by a desire to serve the public. But, Hoover wanted the public to respect him and love him because he was Herbert Hoover. Out of office,  Hoover turned into a bitter reactionary. But, as Hoover would say in his retirement (he lived until he was 90) about how endured all the taunts, “I just outlived all the bastards.”

Herbert Clark Hoover was born into a Quaker family on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa. He was orphaned at the age of 10 and sent off to live with an uncle in Oregon. Not surprisingly, Hoover had a very unhappy childhood. His uncle, who had recently lost his son, didn’t find Herbert Hoover a suitable replacement. But, Hoover did get an education. And, in 1891, Hoover was admitted to the first ever class of a new university in California: Leland Stanford Junior University. Hoover’s field of study was geology.

While at Stanford, Hoover found the eye of another woman who was in the geology major. Actually, she was the ONLY woman in the geology major at the time. Her name was Lou (short for Louise) Henry. The two would eventually marry in 1899. In addition to raising two children, Herbert and Lou collaborated on an English translation of the 16th Century textbook on metallurgy called De re metallica.

Hoover was also the student manager of the football team. He is credited with coming up with the idea for the first Cal-Stanford Big Game in March of 1892. Stanford won the first meeting 14-10, although the game was delayed supposedly because Hoover neglected to bring a football with him.

Fresh out of college, Hoover managed to get a job with the English mining firm of Bewick, Moening, and Company. He traveled the world inspecting mines for the company. He became an expert at getting mines that were not meeting production quotas up to speed. By the age of 27, Hoover was a full partner in the firm and moved to London fulltime.

In 1908, Hoover left Bewick and became a consultant. He made millions hopping around the globe trying to get mines to produce more. His style was autocratic, but highly successful.

Leuchtenburg points out that despite Hoover being orphaned at a young age, he didn’t try to be much of a parent to his own two sons. While on his frequent travels, he would communicate infrequently with his children and even his wife.

When World War I began in 1914, Hoover’s public profile shot up. Hoover helped finance the journeys of numerous American expatriates back to the United States. Many had found their lines of credit cut off by banks because of the war. But, the biggest problem Europe faced was hunger.

Belgium was the country where much of the initial fighting took place, and, according, it suffered the most. Hoover managed to convince both the British and German to allow him to bring in relief supplies to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Hoover was also determined to make sure that the relief went directly to the people who needed it, and was not siphoned off to any army. Hoover’s efforts in Belgium made him a worldwide figure.

Once the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson summoned Hoover back to the United States to head up the newly created Food Administration. Hoover was charged with keeping America’s food supply going to meet the added demand of a war.

Hoover did not want to have to resort to rationing. Instead, he created a small army of volunteers (nearly all of the women) to go door to door to encourage people to forego meat on Mondays or wheat products on Wednesdays. Hoover was given wide latitude by Congress and the President to act as he saw fit. He was dubbed “the food czar.” No matter what the title was, Hoover got results. The United States did not have to force the rationing of food during World War I.

When the war was over, Hoover was possibly the most popular political figure in the United States. Hoover supported Wilson’s efforts during the negotiations at Versailles. He came out in favor of the League of Nations. He opposed the stepped up prosecutions of Communists by Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. Hoover was the darling of the Progressive movement. One prominent Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hoped that the party could convince Hoover to run for President in 1920.

There was one problem: nobody knew what party Hoover belonged to. Hoover had never explicitly said so. Finally, in the summer of 1920, Hoover announced that he was a Republican. One reason for this was that Hoover did not wish to be identified with racist Southern Democrats. Also, Hoover could see that the Democrats were sure losers in 1920.

After Warren Harding swept into office in the 1920 election, Hoover was offered his choice of Cabinet positions. Hoover opted for the job of Secretary of Commerce. This was an unusual choice as the job had little cachet attached to it. (Can you name the current Secretary of Commerce?)

DSCF0908Hoover revolutionized the office of Secretary of Commerce. He was able to convince the President and Congress to add more responsibilities to the job. Under Hoover, the Commerce Department took control of the Census, the regulation of air travel, and the regulation of radio frequencies. Hoover established commissions to study pretty much any issue that he felt that the Commerce Department might have some responsibility for.

After Calvin Coolidge became President after the death of Harding, Hoover remained in the job. Coolidge did not particularly care for Hoover, sarcastically referring to him as “the Boy Wonder.” But, Hoover could not be replaced. He had made himself indispensible in the eyes of the public.

During the great famine of 1921 in the Soviet Union, Hoover led a relief effort there, despite the objections of many who wanted nothing to do with the Communist regime there. Ironically, Hoover may have done more harm than good. Soviet foreign policy expert George Kennan would later claim that Hoover’s efforts in the USSR served only to legitimize the leadership of Lenin. Hoover would be one of the few Republicans who wanted to normalize relations with the USSR. (This wouldn’t happen until 1933.)

In 1927, one of the largest natural disasters ever to befall the United States hit. It was the Mississippi River Flood. Over 700,000 people had to leave their homes. 27,000 square miles of land were flooded. Over 200 people died.

Hoover was tabbed by Coolidge to head up the relief efforts. This was an area where Hoover did his best. He traveled throughout the affected areas, ordering people to fix problems, not in a week, not in a day, but NOW. Orders were given by Hoover. He expected them to be obeyed. Hoover also made sure that aid was equally distributed to both white and black victims of the flood. This earned him the enmity of some in the South, but further burnished his image with Progressives.

When Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for another term in 1928, Hoover was the presumptive Republican nominee for President. He faced little opposition and had to do little campaigning to win the nomination. Although the Republican Convention was held in Kansas City, it was still not the practice at the time for the candidate to be present to receive the nomination. So, Hoover gave his acceptance speech at Stanford Stadium.

The election of 1928 was no contest. The Democrats nominated New York governor Al Smith, who was the first Catholic nominee from a major party. America was not ready to elect a Catholic, especially one who favored the repeal of Prohibition. Hoover won 58% of the popular vote and 40 of the 48 states. Hoover even won four states of the Confederacy, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, which was quite a feat for that era.

Hoover’s inaugural address was full of high-flying language.

We are steadily building a new race—a new civilization great in its own attainments. The influence and high purposes of our Nation are respected among the peoples of the world. We aspire to distinction in the world, but to a distinction based upon confidence in our sense of justice as well as our accomplishments within our own borders and in our own lives.
—-
This is not the time and place for extended discussion. The questions before our country are problems of progress to higher standards; they are not the problems of degeneration. They demand thought and they serve to quicken the conscience and enlist our sense of responsibility for their settlement. And that responsibility rests upon you, my countrymen, as much as upon those of us who have been selected for office.
Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure. In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.

Hoover had big plans for his Administration. He wanted to streamline government regulations and was prepared to establish numerous commissions to accomplish this. (This has been a popular technique since). There was a proposal to build what would become the St. Lawrence Seaway, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a dam in Boulder Canyon of the Colorado River (which would become Hoover Dam). There were also plans to reform the Federal prison system. Hoover also canceled all leases for oil drilling on Federal lands.

On October 14, 1929, Hoover attended Game 5 of the 1929 World Series at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. He received a huge ovation from the crowd.

Note: Half-assed attempts at explaining economics follow. Any resemblance between my writing and actual economic theory is entirely coincidental.

Ten days later, Black Thursday hit Wall Street. Over 12 million shares (besting the previous high by 4 million) were traded at the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 1929. The Dow Jones average dropped from 305 to 299. But, Wall Street said that there was little to worry about. On the following Monday, the Dow dropped to 260. And on Tuesday, it was 230. The slide would continue until 1932. The Dow lost 89% compared to its high on September 3, 1929.

The Wall Street Crash was just one symptom of the many problems of the Great Depression. Banks began to rein in credit (or simply just fail) and foreclose on homes and farms. Industries cut back on wages or laid off employees. People saw their life savings disappear.

Hoover, faced with an unprecedented crisis, took steps that most economists believed only exacerbated the problems. One of the biggest blunders was his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in June of 1930. This bill raised tariffs to unprecedented levels. The result was a sharp decline in imports. Also, other nations passed their own protective tariff measures.

Despite his background in humanitarian causes, Hoover gave the impression that he didn’t care much about the problems that many Americans were facing. Part of this was from the fact that Hoover was now a President. He had to work with Congress and politicians with different agendas. He found himself in a position where he had less authority to get things done. Hoover was also strongly opposed to any Federal government handouts, feeling that they contrary to the spirit of individualism that he was trying to build in the country.

Hoover was also convinced that the biggest problem with the economy was the Federal Government’s budget deficit. Hoover raised income taxes and sharply curtailed Federal spending. The net effect of this was to suck even more money out of the economy. (For a dissenting opinion, you can read this book.)

By October of 1931, when Hoover returned to Shibe Park to see the Philadelphia Athletics play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, he was booed. Few Presidents had ever received such a public reaction like that at that time. (It’s not unusual now. Here’s the reaction George W. Bush got in 2001. By 2008, the reaction was different. Barack Obama’s reception at the 2009 All-Star Game could be described as “mixed.”) A growing number of homeless people formed communities that were dubbed “Hoovervilles.”

Despite his wide travels in the world, Hoover was not an expert on foreign policy. He hoped to ease tensions between the United States and Latin America, but ended up sending troops using troops to prop up a right wing regime in Nicaragua, setting up the long battle between the Somoza regime and the Sandinistas that would last until the Reagan years. (Hoover would withdraw the troops before he left office.) Hoover, like most other world leaders of the time, did not do much of anything to stem the rise of German fascism or Japanese militarism.

The nadir of his unpopularity may have been in July of 1932 when a group of World War I veterans marched to Washington asking Congress to pay them a promised bonus for their military service a few years early. The ragtag group camped out in Washington, but Hoover ordered the Army to clear them out. Under the direction of Douglas MacArthur, the Army routed the so called “Bonus Army” from their encampment. The Army was portrayed as using brutal means to accomplish this, although most accounts agree that it didn’t take much force to get the protesters to move. Also, rolling tanks down the streets of Washington tend to make people less inclined to protest.

There was one forward looking project that Hoover tried in an effort to provide some help. In the summer of 1932, Hoover started a program called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. It was a government entity that would provide loans to state and local government, along with banks and other financial institutions. But, the program was bogged down in bureaucracy and little of the money that the RFC was authorized to lend was spent during Hoover’s term in office.

Hoover was pleased that the Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt for President in 1932, feeling that he had a much better chance of beating him in November. Hoover thought that Roosevelt was an intellectual lightweight. But, Hoover could not overcome his unpopularity. He was also no match for Roosevelt as a campaigner. Roosevelt seemed energetic and positive. Hoover was dour and stuffy.

After winning 40 states in 1928, Hoover would win just six in 1932. Hoover received just 39% of the popular vote and only 59 electoral votes, 36 of them from Pennsylvania. Hoover’s home state of California gave him just 37% of the vote.

During the campaign, Hoover was personally hurt by Roosevelt’s claim that Hoover had encouraged reckless speculation in the stock market. (In fact, Hoover had done the opposite as Secretary of Commerce.) Hoover wanted to have Roosevelt work with him during the transition to calm the financial markets. But, Roosevelt refused and remained silent.

On March 4, 1933, Hoover had to hold in his emotions as Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office. He felt as if his life’s work had all been for naught.

After remaining quiet for about a year after the election, Hoover began to speak out against Roosevelt. He denounced the New Deal programs as socialistic. (Ironically, one of Hoover’s closest friends overseas was British Prime Minister James Ramsay McDonald, one of the most leftward leaning PMs in history.) He considered Roosevelt to be one of the most dangerous men to ever be President. Roosevelt responded in not so subtle ways. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had the name of Hoover Dam changed to Boulder Dam (it would be later changed back.)

After Roosevelt’s death, Hoover headed up a commission for President Harry Truman that examined government waste and inefficiency. This job won Hoover some plaudits.

Eventually, Hoover took on the air of a beloved elder statesman. The Republicans held “farewell” celebrations for him at their conventions in 1952, 1956, and 1960. The Senate honored Hoover in 1957 with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy feting the former President. Hoover was too ill to attend the 1964 convention, although nominee Barry Goldwater offered his respects.

Hoover was working on his own biography of Franklin Roosevelt before his death. It has never been published or even released to scholars for inspection because, according to Leuchtenburg, its tone is so strident that it would tarnish Hoover’s reputation more than Roosevelt’s.

Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 in New York City at the age of 90. He was buried back in his native Iowa alongside his wife Lou, who had died in 1944.

Leuchtenburg has penned an interesting biography of a man who was very hard to know. The private side of Hoover was seldom revealed, even to people in his own family. Leuchtenburg tries to shed light on an almost entirely opaque figure.

Hoover was someone who Americans, at least for a while, admired. But they didn’t seem to actually like him. Hoover didn’t want to be liked. He wanted to get things done, but he never could figure out how to get things done as President. When you become President, you have to know how to work with people, not just order them around. Hoover likely came to the White House expecting to do great things, but the Great Depression ended those hopes.

Would Hoover had fared better during a time of prosperity? We don’t know. But, you can only judge Hoover by what he did with the situation he was given. In a country that was losing hope, Hoover offered almost none.

Please note a correction above marked by strikeout and italic type.

Other stuff: Herbert and Lou Hoover are buried at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is part of that site.

After World War I, Hoover started a research institute at Stanford to study the cause of the war. Since then, the Hoover Institution has become of the one most influential conservative think tanks in the United States, covering all aspects of public policy. Some of its fellows have included Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Edwin Meese, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell.

Hoover was the last sitting Cabinet member to be elected President and only the fourth one overall. The other three were James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, all of whom were Secretaries of State.

The only other candidate from the two major parties who attended a Pac-10 university was Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater attended, but did not graduate from the University of Arizona.

Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

President #16, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #1

The Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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William McKinley by Kevin Phillips

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

The War With Spain Starts Mainly With the Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg

President #30, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #26

The chief business of this blog is business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean

President #29, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #38

Getting back to normalcy?

hardingAmerica’s 29th President, Warren Gamaliel Harding, has not fared well in the eyes of historians. He is viewed as a weak leader who appointed corrupt friends to high government positions. He was accused of extramarital affairs and fathering illegitimate children. People have speculated that he was murdered by his wife. And not many people even know or cared about what happened during his Administration.

John W. Dean (yes, that John W. Dean, from Watergate times) took on the task of trying to find out who the real Warren Harding was. And why Dean? Is it because he is an expert on presidential scandals? No, it’s actually because Dean grew up in Marion, Ohio, the same town where Harding grew up and lived most of his life. Dean has spent a good amount of his life studying the life of Harding.

Dean has been rather harsh toward other Presidents in books he’s written (namely Richard Nixon and George W. Bush), but in this biography, Dean is almost sympathetic to one of the lesser lights to inhabit the White House. Dean tries to get you to believe that Harding was a decent man, who was in over his head, yet still tried his best.

However, it is hard to believe that someone like Warren Harding ever made it to the White House. Harding did little in his political life except be nice to the right people and “look” presidential. He accomplished little on the domestic front, and his principal foreign policy initiative, the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference, was soon forgotten.

When Harding was 18, he was able to get the financing (all $300 of it) that let him purchase the Marion Star newspaper in his Ohio hometown. Harding loved running a newspaper and developed an interest in politics because of it.

One of the local figures in Marion that Harding took on was the richest man in town, Amos Kling. Eventually, Kling’s daughter, Florence, married Harding, despite the protestations of her father. Florence Harding had borne a child out of wedlock before marrying Warren Harding, although that son ended up being raised by her father, who described his grandson as his “son.” Kling disapproved of Harding and started a rumor campaign in Marion that described Harding as being part African-American. (Kling actually used a far less polite term.) Harding would have to confront stories about his ancestry throughout his life.

Florence, often described as the woman who pushed Warren into politics, actually didn’t do so, according to Dean. Harding decided to run for the state legislature on his own. While serving in Columbus, Harding developed a reputation as being an all around nice guy, who gave good speeches. This eventually elevated Harding into the lieutenant governor’s job in Ohio, but when he tried for the governor’s job in 1910, he was defeated.

Harding started his political comeback when he put William Howard Taft’s name into nomination at the Republican Convention in 1912. In 1914, when Ohio held its first direct senatorial election, Harding won and he and Florence headed off to Washington.

While in the Senate, Harding generally tried to spend most of his time developing connections that could help his standing. He befriended a senator from New Mexico named Albert Fall. This would end up not being a good career move in the long run for Harding. But, at least Fall had a nice mustache.

After eight years of Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in the White House, the American voters were ready to vote Republican. Wilson’s popularity had plummeted after World War I with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and for the final 18 months of his term, he was rarely seen in public, and the government was run mostly by Wilson’s wife and some key aides.

Nevertheless, Wilson thought he could run for a third term. He was politely told by people that he shouldn’t do so. (Primarily because Wilson was almost dead and could barely talk or see.) Theodore Roosevelt was talked about as a candidate to run for the White House in 1920, but those plans were interrupted when Roosevelt died in 1919.

So, the two major political figures for the 1920 Presidential campaign (Wilson and Roosevelt) were either dead or incapacitated. Into the void, entered Warren Harding, the nice guy from Ohio.

Harding started his campaign in the winter of 1919, but his strategy, formed by Ohio’s Republican boss, Harry Daugherty, was to not try to win the nomination outright, but rather to just hang around during the primaries (which were still in their infancy) and then hope for a deadlocked convention. Harding’s plan was to try to offend as few people as possible.

And Harding’s plan worked. Leonard Wood, who had served with Roosevelt in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, was the leader among a crowded field heading into the Republican Convention. But Wood had irritated too many people during his campaign. No majority was reached by the Friday of the convention. Most observers felt that the delegates wanted to nominate someone on Saturday. Why? So they wouldn’t have to pay for an extra day of hotels. And on that Saturday, Harding ended up as the choice of the Convention on the tenth ballot.

Harding ran against another Ohioan, Governor James Cox (who had a young assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate, a counterpoint to dour Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s running mate). It would be the first election in which women could vote. It was a landslide. Harding won over 60% of the vote and racked up 404 electoral votes. Harding became the first sitting member of the United States Senate to be elected President.

Almost from the outset, Harding ran into problems in office. His Cabinet had some good people in it, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of Labor James Davis, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon.  However, Harding also picked friends like Daugherty to be Attorney General and Fall to be Secretary of the Interior. Florence’s personal physician, Charles Forbes, would be in charge of veterans medical affairs.

Harding, like seemingly every President, felt that there was too much government spending, and he needed to rein it in. And, like most Presidents, he wasn’t all that successful at doing that. Harding did establish the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) which may be the one legacy of Harding’s administration that lives on today that people have heard of.

Dean tries to detail other legislative initiatives that Harding tried, but none of them stand out. Harding vetoed a plan to award World War I vets a bonus because he didn’t like the way it was funded (primarily, because it wasn’t funded at all). There were some attempts at raising tariffs, which were a pet cause of Republicans of the time. Harding also tried to limit immigration, but that didn’t work as desired because Harding was hesitant to order wide-scale deportations. Dean paints a picture of Harding as a diligent worker, but someone who just didn’t have the temperament to be an executive. He was someone who was your pal, not your boss.

Harding had one minor success in foreign affairs when he was able to get the major powers (U.S, Britain, and Japan) to come to Washington (with Hughes mediating) and negotiate a treaty that was supposed to slow down (or stop all together) the buildup in naval armaments. This was a noble idea. But, World War II spoke to the lasting effect of that treaty.

Scandals started to touch the White House early in 1923. Forbes was discovered to have sold large amounts of surplus government medical supplies to private companies seemingly below cost. But, Forbes actually was taking kickbacks on the deals and enriching himself. Forbes was dismissed from his post.

In the summer of 1923, the Hardings embarked on a trip for the West Coast and Alaska, in order to relax and also to do some campaigning for his own agenda. Harding became the first President to visit Alaska and the first to visit Canada. But while golfing in Portland, Harding took ill with severe chest pains. Harding, who came into office with a bad heart and likely had suffered a mild undiagnosed heart attack in the winter, was suffering from congestive heart failure and pneumonia. In an era before antibiotics and detailed knowledge of cardiological problems, there was little that doctors could do for Harding. He passed away in San Francisco on August 2, 1923 at age 57.

Not long after Harding’s passing, more scandals came to the fore. The most famous was the Teapot Dome scandal. Interior Secretary Fall had been leasing what were supposed to be protected oil reserves to private interests, headed by California oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. The fact that Fall leased them was not the problem. The problem was that Sinclair and Doheny had furnished Fall with bribes in order to get the leases. Eventually, Fall would go to prison for receiving the bribes, although Sinclair and Doheny were acquitted of giving a bribe. Attorney General Daugherty was caught up in this scandal, as well as several others. (It would take a lot of space to list them.) Daugherty resigned his position, but was never convicted of any crime.

In addition to the real scandals, a cottage industry about fabricating Presidential scandals sprung up. A woman named Nan Britton wrote a book called The President’s Daughter, where she claimed to have had an affair with Harding in the White House and having a child with him. H.L. Mencken gave the book a favorable review and sales skyrocketed. Most historians believe that no such affair with Britton occurred.  Harding did have at least one extramarital affair before he became President, according to Dean.

A man named Gaston Means got author May Dixon Thacker to write a book about his “reminiscences” of Harding. It was titled The Strange Death of President Harding. It was supposed to revelatory and accused Florence Harding of poisoning her husband. The book is considered to be almost, but not quite, entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Florence Harding is still thought by some to have murdered her husband.

Warren Harding didn’t leave much of a legacy. His election showed the danger of electing a President who just looked the part. He came from an era where speeches with passages like this:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

were considered brilliant oratory.

Dean states that his main reason for writing about Harding was to set the record straight on him. And to that extent, he succeeds. Warren Harding was not a great president, but he wasn’t a horrible person. He just was unremarkable, and overly loyal to his friends. He was a man who stumbled into the highest office in the land by pissing off fewer people than his opponents. It seems that Americans haven’t used that technique for electing a President subsequently.

Harding’s successor, the laconic and phlegmatic Calvin Coolidge, would actually be the President who become far more famous and beloved by the American people.

Other stuff: Warren Harding’s home isn’t part of the National Park Service. Instead, it is operated by the Ohio Historical Society and it is in Marion.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, described the “Warren Harding Effect”, where people judge a person instantly, but use the wrong clues.

Harding appointed former President Taft to be Chief Justice. Harding’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry C. Wallace, was the father of Henry A. Wallace, who would hold the same position under Franklin Roosevelt, and then later serve as Vice President for one term.