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Without his mother around, Calvin became a shy and somewhat withdrawn child.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For a man who appeared to be very quiet and withdrawn, it would seem unlikely that Coolidge could propel himself into the highest office in the country.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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Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby

President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7

Embargo! O grab me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Adams by John Patrick Diggins

President #2, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #17

May all your wars be Quasi Wars

johnadamsFor most of our lives, John Adams was an historical figure whom people recognized, yet thought little of. We figured he must have been important since he helped write the Declaration of Independence and also became President. But he was no George Washington, a larger than life military hero and “Father of the Country.” He was no Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance man, and thinker of deep thoughts.

John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers whom people had never developed a great deal of reverence for. His face didn’t appear on any currency that was commonly in use. He was just “that guy between Washington and Jefferson.” He doesn’t have a monument or memorial in Washington, D.C. that people go out of their way to see. (There are plans to build a new Adams memorial there.)

But recently, John Adams has had a significant revival among historians. Much of this came from David McCullough’s John Adams, which was a best-seller and later an HBO miniseries. And 175 years after he passed away, John Adams has become one of the most popular historical figures in American history.

John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at City University of New York, got on board the John Adams train with his biography of the second president, which was published in 2003. Diggins’ biography, for a 150+ page book, is densely packed with discussions about Adams political writings. If you’re looking for something that would be starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, this isn’t the book.

Diggins spends one chapter discussing at length (at least it seemed so to me because it was a slog despite being just over 20 pages) going over two of Adams political writings. One is A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, which Adams had published in 1787 and 1788. It was Adams’ response to criticisms of the new U.S. Constitution by French philosophers.

In Defence, Adams explains why America needed a relatively complex system of government with numerous checks and balances instead of a model like the French National Assembly, where all the power was held by one body. If you’ve read the whole thing (it’s three volumes long), you have my admiration.

The other book Adams penned was titled Discourses on Davila. It serves as something of a fourth volume to Defence and it was published in 1790. In it, Adams answered charges that he was a monarchist and an aristocrat.

Adams felt that an aristocracy was something that could not be avoided in society. There was a natural tendency for people to associate with people from their own backgrounds economically. Also people always wanted to better themselves, so there was always going to be some group that people wanted to aspire to become part of. Adams felt that the U.S. Constitution was well-suited to providing a maximum amount of liberty despite the presence of an aristocracy.

Diggins spends a long time in a short book comparing the political philosophies of Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Diggins clearly believes that Adams was the superior. Jefferson is portrayed by Diggins as someone who claimed to be a champion of civil liberties and the common man, but failed to grasp the fact that the style of government Jefferson advocated ended up being the Directory of France, which led to the Reign of Terror. Diggins argues that Adams, as a constitutionalist, actually did more for civil liberties because it takes government action to grant such liberties. The Constitution, as Lincoln said, protects us from ourselves.

One of Adams arguments against always bending to majority rule boiled down to this “What if one day 51 people supported one issue and 49 people opposed it? And what happens if one person changes his mind the next day?”  John Adams would not be a big fan of California’s initiative system.

However, Diggins book was supposed to be about Adams’ presidency. And after about 80 pages, Adams takes over the Presidency, edging out Jefferson in the election of 1796 by three electoral votes (there was no popular vote at the time). Prior to 1804, the Vice President was whomever finished second. So, Adams had the uncomfortable position of having his arch-rival serving as his second in command. (Hey, it’s like California where we have a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor!)

Adams was not a successful president as he was presented with a difficult diplomatic situation with France and he faced opposition from Jefferson’s Republicans (who thought Adams was a monarchist) and  Alexander Hamilton’s arch-Federalists (who thought Adams was too conciliatory toward Jefferson).

One of Adams first acts was sending three envoys to France to start negotiations about the problem of French ships preying on American merchant ships that were trading with England. But the French demanded, for lack of a better word, a bribe before they would talk with the Americans. This event became known as the XYZ affair and since zippers had not been invented, I will state that XYZ referred to the three anonymous people who solicited the bribes. That ended that attempt at diplomacy and the United States and France soon started what became known as the Quasi War, a war that existed in all but name (see also Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.).

Adams hoped that building an American Navy would help with the problems with France, but Hamilton wanted an Army and managed to get himself appointed to be general. Jefferson and his faction opposed any hostility with the French because they admired the French Revolution, which was mostly about lopping off heads at the time. A full-scale war was averted through a mixture of diplomacy and increased internal problems in France (such as Napoleon coming to power) which left the French not particularly interested in pursuing a war with a pipsqueak republic in North America.

Tensions during the Quasi War ran high in the press, which was extraordinarily partisan at the time. Personal attacks on Adams and Jefferson by either side were the norm, and often done by printers who were on the government payroll.  To combat this, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which served to curb immigration (Irish and French immigrants tended to be on Jefferson’s side) and also make it crime to say anything bad about the President and Congress in the press.

So you might be saying to yourself, “This Sedition Act sounds unconstitutional.” It very well was, but there was never a court test of it and the concept of judicial review wouldn’t be established until 1803. The Acts themselves had built in expiration dates, and they ended as Adams left office. Diggins doesn’t believe Adams came up with the idea of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but since they happened on his watch, he was ultimately responsible, and they remain the biggest blot on the historical record for Adams.

Another event in Adams’ term in office that is little remembered now, but was a big issue at the time was something called Fries’ Rebellion. John Fries was a German immigrant who worked as auctioneer in Pennsylvania. To help fund the Quasi War, Adams had Congress pass a measure which was called the House Tax, which was a nationwide property tax of sorts. Fries led a movement (a rather tame one) that encouraged Pennsylvanians to not pay the tax since it wasn’t proportional to the population. Fries and two others were arrested for this and convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.

However, Adams pardoned Fries because he felt that he had not committed treason, but rather just led a protest that was not intended to overthrow the government. Hamilton and his supporters were aghast and in the election of 1800 they would get revenge on Adams for his perceived apostasy.

The election of 1800 is often called “The Revolution of 1800.” As Diggins points out, it was the first time that a nation that was born out of a violent revolution ever had a peaceful change of power. The election was nasty as Adams’ and Jefferson’s supporter slung mud in what would soon become an American tradition for campaigns. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied for the top spot and Hamilton (who didn’t campaign too much for Adams) was able to get the House of Representatives to put Jefferson in the top spot, because while Hamilton hated Jefferson, Hamilton hated Burr twice as much. And of course, Hamilton and Burr ended up as the Tupac and Biggy of the early 19th Century.

And on March 4, 1801, heroic Thomas Jefferson rode his horse into Washington, D.C. and was inaugurated in front of an adoring crowd and gave an inaugural address that would be the standard by which others were judged for over a century. And dour John Adams slipped out of town and didn’t watch his successor’s inauguration, although Diggins speculates that Jefferson never invited Adams.

After both men had left office, Adams and Jefferson patched up their differences and started a famous series of correspondence where they debated the issues of the day. The standards of the time prevented either man from going on the lecture circuit or writing memoirs to make money, which is sad because I would have paid pretty good money to watch John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debate the issues of the day. It sounds a bit more appealing than watching David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon.

If you are inclined to take in Diggins book about Adams, bring your thinking cap. It is not a romp through the American Revolution and the Federalist Era. It’s a study about how Adams and his political philosophy stood up against the likes of Jefferson, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. It’s a biography of Adams for people who may be interested in placing Adams in the grand scheme of things as a political thinker, rather than just picturing him as a character in a premium cable series.

Other stuff: As mentioned in his son’s post, the Adams are remembered at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Henry Adams, the great grandson of John Adams, does have a famous statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens by his grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

John Adams died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 90 years, 247 days. That was the longest lifespan of any President until Ronald Reagan surpassed Adams in 2001. Gerald Ford later surpassed Reagan’s lifespan, passing away at age 93.

Adams was the first U.S. President who was a college graduate. Adams graduated from Harvard, the first of five alums (as undergrads) from Harvard who would become Chief Executive. John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were the others. George W. Bush received an MBA from Harvard, but was an undergrad at Yale. Rutherford Hayes and Barack Obama attended Harvard Law School, but were undergrads elsewhere.

For technical reasons (like me not knowing how the software worked) this might have appeared in your RSS reader before it was visible. Sorry about that.


Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

martinvanburenMartin Van Buren is not a president who inspires people in this day and age. He exists mainly as a name to remember when you’re trying to remember the names of all the presidents. Fortunately, Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, penned a biography of the first president born after the Declaration of Independence, the first president who wasn’t at least part English (there have been only two and Barack Obama isn’t the other one), and the first president who grew up speaking a language other than English.

Born into a lower middle class Dutch family in the upstate New York city of Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren was the first president to get elected primarily because he had the political smarts to pull it off. Van Buren was neither a military hero nor was he a Founding Father (or son of one). He was a man who became quite taken with the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson as a young man and then was able to work his way up to the highest office in the land.

And almost as soon as he took office, the United States economy plunged into a financial panic that had not been seen since the Constitution had been adopted. And master politician Martin Van Buren was not a master economist and after four years, Van Buren was bounced out of office in the 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of the Whig Party that got the American people used to buying into catchy slogans in an effort to make them feel better about themselves.

Widmer has a sense of humor that appealed to me. Here is a passage from a chapter where the author discusses Van Buren’s attempts to organize opposition to then incumbent president John Quincy Adams.

None of this activity was lost on President Adams, who could not have looked upon Van Buren’s activity with more disfavor if he was an emissary from the Vatican seeking to convert Yankee maids to Papism and then sell them into white slavery.

Van Buren’s accomplishments are usually presented in terms that a reader could compare to the political realities of today. The problems may have been different (well, except for the major financial disaster, that seems to be something we can relate to now), but there are parallels to today. When Van Buren’s opponents couldn’t find an actual solution to a problem that Van Buren couldn’t solve either, the alternative became to attack the person. Van Buren had done the same thing when he was attacking Adams as president and Van Buren ended up with a taste of his own medicine.

But just what did Van Buren do as president? If you’re looking for a major accomplishment that Van Buren had while he was president, you aren’t going to find one. But before Van Buren moved into the White House, he had begun the development of the Democratic Party as the first truly organized political party in the United States. But Van Buren did little to end or even ameliorate the financial panic.

Much of what we think of when we think of a political party were started by Van Buren. He established state party committees and tried to keep all parts of the country informed as to what the Democratic “message” was.  This was all at a time when communications in the United States were revolutionized by the development of the telegraph and railroads. Politics was no longer local, it was national. (Well, until the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill told us that all politics was local.)

Van Buren’s became a confidante of Andrew Jackson after the election of 1824. Although Van Buren had backed William Crawford in 1824, he saw that Jackson was the man who was going to go places. Van Buren advised Jackson to stay out of the political arena and, in the words of Widmer, “to look presidential.” Van Buren’s strategy paid off and in 1828, Jackson won the presidency over Adams, who had to ruin his image by actually trying to govern (which he did poorly.)

At the same time, Van Buren was elected governor of New York. However, he held that office for only a few months as Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State. Later, Jackson appointed Van Buren to serve as U.S. minister to Britain (this was not considered a demotion at the time), but the Senate rejected Van Buren’s nomination with Vice President John Calhoun casting the tiebreaking vote against Van Buren. Calhoun would later resign the Vice Presidency before Jackson could not invite him back and Van Buren took over the #2 job in 1833. Calhoun had also been John Quincy Adams’ Vice President and was getting tired of the job. And Calhoun was just an all around miserable person.

Following after one of America’s most popular presidents in Jackson, Van Buren had little trouble defeating a combination of Whig Party candidates in 1836 (William Henry Harrison finished second). However, Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, had to be elected by the Senate as he failed to get a majority of the electoral votes as many Southerners objected to the fact that Johnson had been married to one of his former slaves.

But the economic hard times defined Van Buren’s four years in office. He was not equipped for the job and likely wasn’t helped that Jackson had shut down the Bank of the United States, the national bank that had provided some sense of semblance of rationality while speculators were driving up land prices and then going broke. Interestingly at this time, one of the economy’s problems was that the Federal Government was running a SURPLUS and was returning money to the states. It would be even more interesting if I knew why running a surplus was bad. But I’m not an economist, just a guy with a blog. Economists today still don’t agree on why there was a panic in 1837, but banks refusing to lend people money was a start.

Widmer includes this description of the Panic of 1837 (as its familiarly called) that was penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bulled into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers a chorus of owls.

While in office, Van Buren had to face the issue of slavery head on and most of the time he tried his best to not make eye contact. Van Buren did refuse to annex the new nation of Texas to the United States because he feared what a large slave-owning state would do to the balance of power in the U.S. And Van Buren has been portrayed as the villain in the Amistad affair, but Widmer attributes this more to Steven Spielberg’s direction of the 1997 film. Nigel Hawthorne portrayed Van Buren in the film. (For more on the Amistad case, read the John Quincy Adams review.)

However, after leaving office, Van Buren had a change of heart about slavery. Widmer can’t point out exactly why except that perhaps Van Buren realized that some things were more important that than trying to keep the South placated as part of a nationa coalition. Van Buren tried for office again in 1844, but lost the nomination to James Polk, who ended up snubbing Van Buren or any of his associates for his administration. In 1848, Van Buren ran again, but the Democrats wouldn’t have him and he ran on a third party ticket called the Free Soil Party, but failed to win any electoral votes, but was enough of a pest to throw the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Van Buren got to be the Ross Perot of 1848.

Widmer managed to pull off the not so easy task of making the life of a career politician, not known for his soaring oratory or military bravery (Van Buren didn’t go to college or serve in the military), into a living, breathing, relevant figure for our times. Martin Van Buren definitely was not a great president. And he may be forgotten, but he is a part of our nation’s history and he is worth looking into.

Other stuff: Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died in 1819 and he never remarried, although he supposedly was quite popular with the ladies. Widmer believes though that he never had a sexual relationship with anyone after his wife passed away.

Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald, is now part of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York.

At 5’6″, Van Buren is believed to be the second shortest U.S. president. Only James Madison (5’4″ to 5’5″) was shorter. However, there aren’t any accurate measurements as few presidents have submitted to getting measured as if they were attending the NFL Draft Combine.

After Van Buren was elected President while serving as Vice President, no other sitting Vice President pulled off that feat until George H.W. Bush did in 1988.

Martin Van Buren was also reference in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

The next president up in my list doesn’t yet have a biography published in the American Presidents Series. So I’m going to read a biography from a different publisher. And it will be about 5 times longer (800 or so pages) than the books in this series. So it may take a while to get the next review published. But stay tuned.

Gerald Ford by Douglas Brinkley

President #38, C-SPAN ranking 22

Pardon me!

geraldford2Gerald Ford had a unique presidency. He was not elected to be vice president. He was not elected to be president. His vice president was not elected either. He was the first president to born with an entirely different first and last name than what he used while in office. He was a remarkably successful politician who never lost an election, until he ran for president on his own.

But what will history remember Gerald Ford for? He was the man who pardoned Richard Nixon. And that one act, something which Ford did not regret, is like that big  blemish on someone’s face that you just can’t help staring at.

Douglas Brinkley, who has written a biography of Jimmy Carter among his many other books, writes the Gerald Ford obituary and does a good job of presenting the two sides of Ford. One side was the grandfatherly, pipe-smoking calm leader who led America out of the dark years of  Watergate. The other side was the man who spent most of this adult life in politics and based many of his decisions based on what was feasible in a hostile political climate.

Ford came into the world with the name Leslie King, but his mother took her son away from her abusive husband and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she remarried a successful local business man, who adopted  young Leslie King and renamed him Gerald R. Ford, Jr. The R stands for Rudolph, which was originally Rudolf, but Ford changed that spelling too.

Ford was an All-America center for the University of Michigan’s football team in 1934.  That Michigan squad went 1-7 and scored just 21 points.

Eventually Ford went on to Yale Law School, served in the Navy in World War II, and then came back to Grand Rapids and started a law practice and went into politics and won a House seat in 1948 and held it until he resigned to become the replacement for Spiro Agnew as Vice President in 1973.

Ford remained loyal to Nixon for as long as he could, but even he had his limits. When it became clear that Nixon had to resign, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig came to Ford with a series of scenarios. One of them was that Nixon would resign in exchange for a pardon from Ford. Did Ford agree to this? According to Brinkley, Ford didn’t. But he also didn’t explicitly say he wouldn’t pardon Nixon. And in such gray areas, Ford’s legacy was made.

The rest of Ford’s presidency featured events such as an attempt to end inflation by getting people to wear WIN (Whip Inflation Now!) buttons and telling people that it was their patriotic duty to spend less, the signing of the Helsinki accords on human rights (which made Ford a pariah to the Republican right, aka Ronald Reagan), watching South Vietnam fall into the hands of Communists, sending Marines to rescue a captured U.S. freighter in Cambodia, and getting to look very presidential during the Bicentennial.

One aspect of Ford’s presidency that Brinkley mentions is Ford’s role in  East Timor. When the Timorese tried to break away from Indonesia, Ford, upon advice from his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, gave the Indonesians free rein to suppress the insurgency. Hundreds of thousands died in a conflict that lasted over 20 years. In his memoirs, Ford pointed to his actions in this matter as one of his biggest mistakes.

Ford lost his chance to be elected in his own right in 1976. Reagan almost denied Ford the nomination and did little campaigning for him in the general election against Jimmy Carter. And despite having the stain of the Nixon pardon and making a huge gaffe in a debate (“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”), Ford narrowly lost in 1976, 50.1%-40.8% 48.0%.

Gerald Ford, unlike the other presidents with official libraries, opted to have the museum attached to it in a different city. Ford’s papers are at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, while a museum dedicated to his life is in his home town of Grand Rapids (I’ve been to it. TWICE!). Ford’s widow, Betty, is of course better known for the rehab clinic she and her husband helped to open in Rancho Mirage, California.

Rancho Mirage is where Gerald Ford passed away on December 26, 2006 at the age of 93. Ford lived longer than any other President, 45 days longer than Reagan.

John Tyler by Gary May

Him too!
10th President. C-Span historians rank: 35

My chaotic journey through the history of the U.S. Presidency begins with a book about the first vice-president to succeed a president who passed away while in office. Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware, penned this surprisingly sympathetic look at one of America’s lesser presidents.

John Tyler was tacked on to the Whig Party’s ticket in 1840 because he had a recognizable name and could help the party out in Virginia, which was still a big player in national politics at the time, as it had 23 electoral votes. The two problems with this were: 1) Tyler had until very recently before the election been a Democrat and had only switched over to the Whigs more or less out of spite and 2) the Whigs, with William Henry (“I died in 30 days”) Harrison leading the way, won the election by a large margin (234-60) and still lost Viriginia.

Harrison, who was 68 when elected and not in the best of health to begin with, died a month into office. So it was time for Tyler to take over. Tyler hadn’t even been living in Washington since the inauguration as he really had nothing to do. But he comes back, tells everyone he’s the boss, vetoes Henry Clay’s favorite legislation, the chartering of a national bank, and almost his entire Cabinet resigns on the spot.

It didn’t get much better for Tyler. He couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. The gory details are here. For a traumatic event that wiped out many high ranking members of government, very few people know about it. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. (For those not scoring at home, Senate President Pro Tem Willie Mangum would have been next in line to become president at the time.)

But Tyler eventually remarried while in office and ended up fathering 14 15!! children in all. And he still has grandchildren (or least a grandchild) alive. Think of when your grandfathers were born. John Tyler was born in 1790!

Tyler’s biggest accomplishment was the annexation of Texas. Tyler had made it his quest to get at least that done before he left office. Thanks to the lobbying of his second wife, Julia, who by all reports was one of the best looking women in Washington, but she was also not afraid to throw herself into the political arena to help her husband.

Since both parties didn’t like Tyler, he didn’t run for reelection. James Polk, the Democratic candidate in 1844 and the eventual victor, campaigned on adding Texas to the United States. But Tyler managed to get Texas added to the U.S. on his watch when he signed a Congressional resolution the day before he left office annexing Texas. Perhaps Tyler knew that there was a city there named after him.

When Tyler passed away in 1862, he was about to start serving in the Confederate Congress. So his passing was not exactly mourned throughout the land.

However, Tyler should be remembered mostly for setting the precedent that when the President dies, the Vice-President becomes president. Some (read “Henry Clay”) wanted to call Tyler the “Acting President.” But Tyler called himself “President” and insisted that he had all the rights and privileges of the office. This principle didn’t become a formal part of the Constitution until 1967.

May wants us to believe that Tyler, a man who financed his first trip to Washington to serve in Congress by auctioning off his most beloved household slave, is not as bad as most historians view him. He believes that Tyler worked as well as he could in such an impossible situation. It’s not easy to govern when you have no constituency. But Tyler didn’t quit. You can’t blame a President for trying I guess.

(Postscript: From the introduction to this book, I have the impression that William Henry Harrison will get his own book, which will be an interesting task. If you’re ever in the Charles City, Virginia area, you can visit Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest.)