Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January 31, 1950:

Truman Goes Hydrogen

In some ways, the power of the modern presidency is mind-boggling. The authority to use nuclear weapons, though it hasn't happened in more than 60 years now, has always been the president's (President Eisenhower began the practice of "predelegation" of that authority to certain field commanders in extreme circumstances, but that's another story).

A milestone in the development of nuclear weapons came 57 years ago today, when President Truman made public that the United States was going to pursue the hydrogen bomb. He said:

"It is part of my responsibility as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. Accordingly, I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb. Like all other work in the field of atomic weapons, it is being and will be carried forward on a basis consistent with the overall objectives of our program for peace and security.

"This we shall continue to do until a satisfactory plan for international control of atomic energy is achieved. We shall also continue to examine all those factors that affect our program for peace and this country's security."

The first such bomb was tested successfully on November 1, 1952 in the Enewetak atoll (pictured); the Soviet Union had its own program, and tested its first H-bomb in 1953.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

January 30, 1882:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Birthday

Children have their own lives. Even the child of a strong-minded, wealthy woman like Sara Roosevelt, who apparently had other ideas besides high office for her son and only child, born this day 125 years ago.

"The training and discipline of young Franklin were left to [his mother] Sara, who had forceful opinions on kind of man she wanted him to become," wrote Joseph P. Lash in Eleanor and Franklin (1971). " 'Never, oh never,' had it been her ambition for him that he should be president. 'That was the last thing I should have ever imagined for him, or that he should be in public life of any sort,' She had only one goal in mind for him:

'that he grow to be a fine, upright man like his father and like her own father, a beloved member of his family and a useful and respected citizen of his community just as they were, living quietly and happily along the Hudson as they had.' "

January 29, 1843:

William McKinley's Birthday

In 1843, Ohio, "Mother of Presidents" produced the last president of the 19th century and the first of the 20th; and the last president to serve in the Civil War, which he survived, only to be shot by an assassin as a middle-aged man. In texts written not long after his death, he's often referred to a the third "martyred" president, which might be an indication of how much he was liked in office -- a fairly hard thing for later generations to imagine, with our tenancy to admire or disdain president for their policies, but not really to like them as a sort of national grandfather.

McKinley also came along during the infancy of electronic communications. His campaigns of 1896 and 1900 were too soon to put his voice on the airwaves, but it was, remarkably, captured on cylinders. In this recording -- which has a long prologue made much latter by someone named William Wedge describing the campaign of 1896 -- there's a bit of a campaign speech by McKinley. He made such speeches at his porch in Ohio, a 19th century way to run for the presidency, while his opponent William Jennings Bryan practiced a proto-20th-century campaign by traveling the country on the stump.

By the time McKinley gave this speech, at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, he'd been re-elected and was beginning to have second thoughts about his longstanding support for trade protectionism. It was among his last speeches, if not his very last. How unfamiliar the timbre and cadence of the voice is. It's the 19th century, so little of which is preserved, speaking to us.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

January 28, 1916:

Wilson Nominates Brandeis

It's remarkable how thoroughly political dustups are forgotten, even if aspects of them later repeat themselves in some way. Intense arguments over Supreme Court nominees, though common in recent decades, are nothing new. The nomination of Louis Dembitz Brandeis to the high court by President Wilson on this day 91 years ago touched off a lengthy controversy.

"Prior to the nomination, [Wilson] only conferred privately with Senator Robert M. LaFollette, the leader of the Progressive Party," writes Richard C. Kagan, professor of history at Hamline University in St. Paul, on his web site. "The suddenness of the announcement, and the secrecy of the decision to appoint a Jew caused a political sensation. For over four months, the longest in the history of a Supreme Court nominee, the Senate Judiciary committee heard heated and complicated testimony...

"The anti-Semitism evident at Brandeis' Senate hearings was subtle. Neither the Boston Brahmins nor the Wall Street lawyers would openly admit their motives... Brandeis was an outsider who denied the legitimacy of the legal system that supported unfettered capitalism. Since Brandeis' intellect, knowledge of the law, and judicial accomplishments were unimpeachable, the Senate Hearings focused on the nature of his 'character.'

"The attack on Brandeis' nomination was led by the State Street and Wall Street legal elite: Henry Cabot Lodge, Senator from Massachusetts, and A. Lawrence Lowell, a corporate lawyer, former President of the American Bar Association and President of Harvard, and William Howard Taft. Lodge questioned Brandeis' fitness to serve: 'For the first time in our history a man has been nominated to the Supreme Court with a view to attracting to the President a group of voters on racial grounds. Converting the United States into a Government by foreign groups is to me the most fatal thing that can happen to our Government . . .' "

In the end, Wilson was a strong enough president to get his way on the Brandeis nomination, persuading most members of his own party to go along with it. Brandeis subsequently served as a distinguished member of the Supreme Court until 1939.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 27, 1755:

Birthday of Ambrose Madison

Who was Ambrose Madison? In this case, the younger brother of James Madison (pictured), Fourth President of the United States and father of the Constitution.

Not a great deal of information is easily available about Ambrose, third child of the elder James Madison and Nell Rose Conway Madison, whose first child was James, born in 1751. All together, the Madisons had 12 children, not all of whom – as to be expected for the time – survived infancy.

Presumably Ambrose, who was named after his and James’ grandfather, grew up in similar circumstances as the younger James and the other surviving children of the elder James and Nell, as part of the landed gentry of Virginia in the late 18th century. He didn’t live long enough to see his brother become chief magistrate of the new republic in 1809, dying in 1793. At that time James Madison was a member of the House of Representatives.

Time, then, to spare a thought for presidential siblings, who are mostly historical nonentities. With certain exceptions, of course: Robert Kennedy was in his brother’s cabinet and might have become president himself; Donald Nixon invented the Nixonburger; and Billy Carter gave the world Billy Beer.

Friday, January 26, 2007

January 26, 1979:

Nelson Rockefeller Dies In Medias Res

Vice presidents who never become president get little chance for posthumous glory, but Nelson Rockefeller probably has a better-than-average chance of a bit of enduring fame because of the circumstances of his death. Other 20th-century vice presidents died of chronic conditions (Hubert Humphrey of cancer; Henry Wallace of Lou Gehrig’s disease; John Nance Garner of old age) or suddenly (Spiro Agnew of leukemia; Alben Barkley of a heart attack). Rockefeller falls into the latter category, a sudden death, but it’s the details that make the story.

Actually, the details aren’t known, but apparently Rockefeller didn’t die during sex, he just suffered a heart attack during his liaison (and at age 70, a dangerous liaison) and died on the way to the hospital. Whether his young mistress called for help promptly or not has been the subject of some speculation, but unless she talks – and even if she talks – that’s likely to remain a mystery.

In any case, Rockefeller, billionaire philanthropist, four-term governor of New York, perennially frustrated presidential candidate, and eventually the 41st Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford, can be said to have died in the saddle. It makes for an interesting end to most any political bio.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

January 25, 1860:

Charles Curtis' Birthday

A number of things distinguish Vice President Charles Curtis from more run-of-the-mill forgotten veeps. Unlike any other vice president or president for that matter, his ancestry included Indians. He was one-eighth Kaw, a tribe living in Kansas in 1860, and by the Indian Office standards of the time, a legal member of that tribe. For a time as a child, he and his sister lived with their maternal grandmother, the daughter of a French Canadian man and a Kaw (Kansa) woman who had married a Frenchman from the St. Louis area.

So Curtis is also one of the few vice presidents or presidents to count the French among his ancestry, though his Indian roots attracted more attention during and after his lifetime, and Curtis himself made political hay with his Indian ancestry when it was expedient. He was also the last vice president to wear a mustache. (The last president was William Howard Taft.)

Curtis' political career was long and distinguished. Admitted to the Kansas bar at 21, at only 24 he was elected Shawnee (Kan.) County Attorney. "Illicit saloon keepers in Topeka had supported Curtis' election in 1884 on the belief that as an Indian he surely was against prohibition and thus would go easy on them; in fact, he virtually ended the illegal flow of alcohol in Topeka and in 1886 was easily re-elected," wrote William E. Unrau in The Vice Presidents (1998). Curtis went to the US House in 1892 and the Senate in 1907 as a Republican, eventually becoming majority leader of that body in 1924.

As a progressive, he supported the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage) and an anti-child labor amendment that wasn't ratified, among other measures. He was also instrumental in passing legislation (the Curtis Act, in fact) that hastened the political demise of the Five Civilized Tribes in the Oklahoma Territory -- an act that probably would now be regarded as an abrogation of tribal rights, but which Curtis surely regarded as progressive measure to benefit individual Indians at the expense of tribal governments. In any case, noted Unrau, "...more than any other person in Congress, Curtis laid the foundation for Oklahoma statehood."

In 1928, his party passed him over for the presidential nomination, choosing Herbert Hoover instead. Curtis accepted the vice presidential nomination and became the 31st Vice President of the United States on March 4, 1929. Unlike Hoover, Curtis didn't get any of the blame for the Depression, but then again vice presidents seldom get blamed for much, or credited with anything either. The vice presidency proved to be the end of his political career, as he went down in defeat with his boss on the Republican ticket in 1932.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24, 1969:

Walter J. Hickel Becomes Secretary of the Interior

Walter Hickel wasn't president and he isn't dead, but he does show that presidents and their cabinets are only human, with that human propensity to quarrel. Relations between chief executives and their cabinets can be downright testy sometimes, with the most extreme case of that being the resignation of John Tyler's entire cabinet in September 1841 over the issue of a National Bank, with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was in the middle of treaty negotiations with Great Britain over the border of Maine and New Brunswick.

That might sound like an en masse walkout, but in those days the cabinet had only five members -- State, Treasury, War, Navy and Attorney General, enough for a decent round of poker. Interestingly, the Secretary of War who quit on President Tyler was none other than Joel Robert Poinsett, also an amateur botanist for whom the poinsettia is named. The Secretary of the Treasury who quit was Thomas Ewing Sr., who in 1849 became the first Secretary of the Interior and gave the department an energetic start as a honeypot of patronage. The Department of the Interior had been created in the wake of the war with Mexico, when suddenly the United States had a lot of land in the west, and Ewing didn't see any reason that couldn't mean opportunity back east as well.

Hickel was the 38th Secretary of the Interior, appointed by Richard Nixon, and sworn in on this day 38 years ago. It seems that Nixon thought he was getting a solidly Republican minion, but Hickel, a longstanding Alaskan politician who gave up the governorship of that state to join Nixon's cabinet, was as independent-minded as Alaskans are reputed to be. Before long, Hickel came to loggerheads with Nixon not over land use or resource policy as much as the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, and the day before Thanksgiving that year, Nixon gave Hickel the bum's rush out of Interior.

A long but interesting interview with Hickel is posted here, and includes this quote: "As Hickel said sometime after his dismissal from the Nixon administration, 'Just because I crawled out of a snake pit doesn't mean I'm a snake.' "

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

January 23, 1933:

Ratification of the 20th Amendment

The 20th amendment to the US Constitution, proposed March 2, 1932, and ratified on January 23, 1933, is one of the longer ones among the 27 amendments. But it needs to be, since among other things it shifted the dates for terms not only for the president and vice president, but also Congress.

We’re so used to the new Congress convening on January 3 (or nearly then, if it’s a Sunday) that it’s easy to forget that the date was, like for presidents and vice presidents, March 4 for most of the history of the Republic. There was typically a fairly long lame-duck session of the old Congress that opened in December, after the elections. The possibility that such a lame-duck Congress would decide the presidency, if it was thrown into the House of Representatives, was one of the things that the 20th amendment was designed to prevent.

The amendment also clarified what would happen if the president-elect happened to die between his election and his accession to office: “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President,” it says. The amendment addressed a circumstance that very nearly happened less than three weeks after its ratification, when an assassin killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and injured other people while (presumably) attempting to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt.

Also, the 20th amendment specifies that if a president hasn’t been chosen by January 20, but a vice president has been, then the vice president-elect would act as president until things were sorted out.

Hard to imagine? If a third party actually got some traction in some future presidential election, and no set of presidential and vice presidential candidates received the need majority in the electoral college, then the two winners would be selected by different houses of Congress. The House chooses the president, the Senate the vice president. If the Senate were able to chose, but the House were deadlocked, then the Senate’s choice would act as president after January 20. It would be a peculiar thing, but possible.

Monday, January 22, 2007

January 22, 1973:

Lyndon Johnson Dies

Only once did two former presidents die closer in time to each other as Harry Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson did, namely the famous deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the same day, July 4, 1826. Nearly 150 years later, the elderly Truman (88) died the day after Christmas in 1972, and the not-so-elderly Johnson (64) died less than a month later, on January 22, 1973. The period of official mourning -- 30 days, marked by flags at half-staff -- wasn't even over for Truman when it happened.

Johnson had been in retirement just over four years. Like Cincinnatus, sort of, he'd gone back to his ranch. Such were the last days of LBJ, 36th President of the United States, according to page one of the New York Times, January 23, 1973:

"...One of Mr. Johnson's last formal appearances took place last Tuesday in Austin, where he attended the inauguration of Gov. Dolph Briscoe and Lieut. Gov. William P. Hobby. On the ceremonial platform outside the capitol, Mr. Johnson, looking thin, seemed to be enjoying an opportunity to see old friends and shake hands with well-wishers who flocked around him.

"Later that day, he took Walter Heller, the former chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, to Southwest Texas State University, Mrs. Johnson's alma mater, in San Marcos, for a talk to a group of students.

"In a discussion of food and meat prices, Mr. Heller predicted a rise of 6 to 7 per cent in meat prices. 'I can tell you what's happening with cattle,' Mr. Johnson said. 'I paid my dealer $92 a ton for feed. The bill went to $110 a ton and now it's costing me $156 a ton for food.'

"Last Saturday, joining Mrs. Johnson in her beautification work, the former President went to Ranch Road 1, which runs across the Pedernales River from the LBJ Ranch, and planted a redbud tree, a Texas tree that blooms with red flowers. The tree was the first of 100 to be planted along the road.

"On that occasion, Mr. Johnson told a friend that he was not feeling very well and said that that was why he had not gone to Washington for the inauguration of President Nixon."

Sunday, January 21, 2007

January 21, 1821:

John C. Breckinridge's Birthday, Maybe

Different sources give different dates as the birthday of John Cabell Breckinridge, sometimes January 21, sometimes January 16, but at least the year is clear: 1821. When he became the 14th Vice President of the United States on March 4, 1857, he was barely 36. He remains the youngest vice president ever to serve.

Son and grandson of successful Kentucky politicians, young Breckinridge was an attorney, Mexican War veteran, and noted member of the US House when tapped for the second spot under James Buchanan in 1856. "For Breckinridge, however, the move into the vice presidency proved to be a massive step downward," wrote John Marhsall Prewitt in The Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. (1998). "... the president pointedly ignored him. Worse yet, within a month of the inauguration, Buchanan not only denied a request from Breckinridge for a private audience but insultingly told the vice president to call instead on the president's niece. Breckinridge was outraged at this treatment -- resulting, apparently, from Buchanan's smoldering resentment that Breckinridge had originally supported Pierce and Douglas at the nominating convention -- but could do nothing."

The office didn't get any better for Breckinridge, dragging on for the next four years as the country verged on falling apart. In 1860, he ran in the infamous four-way race for the presidency as the nominee of the southern wing of the Democratic Party, losing to Lincoln. In March of 1861, the Kentucky legislature sent him to the US Senate, where he was an outspoken opponent of Lincoln's policies:

"Mr. President, gentlemen talk about the Union as if it was an end instead of a means," he said on the Senate floor on August 1, 1861. "They talk about it as if it was the Union of these States which alone had brought into life the principles of public and of personal liberty. Sir, they existed before, and they may survive it..." See here for the full text.

The next month, while Breckinridge was visiting Kentucky, the heads of the now-unionist state legislature called for his arrest, and he "went south" (after which the Senate expelled him). For the next four years, he served the CSA with distinction, mostly as a field commander but eventually as the last Confederate secretary of war. At the end, he opposed continuing the struggle as a guerilla war. "This has been a magnificent epic; in God's name, let it not terminate in a farce," he said.

January 20, 1937:

The First January 20 Inauguration

Among other things, the 20th amendment to the US Constitution fixed January 20 as the beginning and end of each presidential term, a change effective for the first time in 1937 at the beginning of President Roosevelt and Vice President Garner’s second terms. Previously inaugurations were held on March 4, so the change cut FDR’s first term by six weeks – not much of a difference considering how long he eventually served.

Not all was well between the president and the vice president at that moment. “The first significant fissure appeared because of disagreements between Roosevelt and Garner on how to handle the sit-down strikes that closed the automotive industry at the end of 1936,” wrote J. Kent Calder in The Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (1998). “…Though Roosevelt disagreed with the method, he refused to denounce the strikers, whose right to unionize the Wagner Act protected. Garner, on the other hand, saw the strikes as illegal… In January 1937, the president and the vice president exchanged heated words over the sit-down strikes, and thereafter Garner worked behind the scenes to oppose his boss.”

Of course, that didn’t affect the inauguration ceremonies on January 20. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes – who came within a whisker of taking a presidential oath himself in 1917, barely losing out to Woodrow Wilson – administered the oath to FDR. The president’s second inaugural speech isn’t especially remembered, certainly nothing like his first, probably because the second didn’t come at such a dramatic moment as March 4, 1933, and also because it isn’t as good. Still, the speech does have some interesting aspects, such as this personification of abstractions:

"Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, 'Tarry a while.' Opportunism says, 'This is a good spot.' Timidity asks, 'How difficult is the road ahead?'

"...If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on."

Friday, January 19, 2007

January 19, 1886:

The Presidential Succession Act of 1886

If your republic has a chief executive, the question of what to do if he dies arises from the get-go. Having a spare, that is, the vice president, has been good enough in the near 218 years since George Washington and John Adams took office, though it seems more like a matter of luck than planning.

Since any two men are as mortal as any two others, the Second Congress in 1792 provided for presidential succession beyond the vice president, making the president pro tempore of the Senate third in line and the speaker of the House fourth. There matters stood for more than 90 years.

In a few cases, the president pro tem of the Senate nearly got to be acting president (or president, taking a cue from John Tyler and making it stick). In 1844, for example, President Tyler was aboard the warship Princeton when one of its guns exploded, killing Secretary of State Abel Upshur and the Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, among others, but not the president -- who had no vice president. Also, had President-elect Franklin Pierce been killed in the railway accident that took his son’s life (see January 6) in 1853, Vice President-elect William R. King would presumably have stayed in Washington DC that winter and been inaugurated president on March 4 -- had he lived that long. As it happened, he died of TB in April after a sojourn in Cuba.

In 1868, President Johnson was very nearly convicted and removed from office. He didn’t have a vice president, so Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio, president pro tem, would have become acting president had one more senator voted to convict. Sen. Wade had a vote in the matter, and the conflict of interest in such a case would have been all too obvious. (He voted to convict.)

The Johnson impeachment fracas and the more recent deaths of President Garfield (1881) and Vice President Thomas Hendricks (1885) helped inspire the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, which was enacted on January 19 of that year at the behest of President Cleveland. It removed members of Congress from the line of succession, substituting members of the Cabinet, beginning with the secretary of state. For one thing, it was observed that many more former secretaries of state had gone on to be president than speakers. The 1886 act also made for a longer list of potential successors, and removed the possibility that an acting president would be of a different party than the late president and vice president. Cabinet members would presumably be more aligned with the late president and vice president than a member of Congress.

No one ever became acting president under the act of 1886, though again there were periods when there was no vice president, such as after the deaths of Presidents McKinley and Harding. The act lasted until 1947, when members of Congress were once again put in the succession, but with the speaker third and president pro tempore fourth – a story for another day.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

January 18, 1862:

John Tyler Dies a Confederate

When the Civil War broke out, there were five former US presidents alive: Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Their home states, respectively, were New York, Virginia, New York, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Four Yankees, only one Southerner, so it’s no surprise that the only former US president to align himself with his native state and the new Confederacy was Virginian John Tyler, who hadn’t been president in over 15 years.

He was a member of the provisional Confederate Congress, which met in Montgomery and then Richmond, and was elected to the First Confederate Congress in November 1861. It was scheduled to meet in February 1862, but before that could happen, death came to President Tyler. His passing was not officially noted by the government of the United States.

The Confederate States of America, on the other hand, lauded Tyler. The Journal of the Confederate Congress for January 20, 1862, says: "He has secured, we believe, a blissful immortality. For the page of history his fame is destined to occupy, it is proper briefly to recount the many offices he has filled... as Vice-President of the United States, presiding over the deliberations of the Senate with dignity and impartiality, preserving the decorum of a body that then was a model for legislative assemblies; as President of the United States, when the national honor and reputation were acknowledged unimpeached and unimpaired in every land, and the powers of the earth looked up to the new Government as an exemplar of morals and of power worthy of respect and imitation."

Of course, eulogies of this sort do not speak ill of the dead, but all the same that's a remarkable bit of Victorian gushery for a president who completely alienated his own party and saw his entire cabinet, except one, resign at the same time.The entire entry is here.

Not until 1911, according to the Presidential Factbook (Joseph Nathan Kane, 1994), did the US Congress authorize an erection of a monument in his honor. Completed in 1915, it stands in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

January 17, 1893:

Rutherford B. Hayes Dies

After his presidency, which by all accounts Rutherford B. Hayes found disagreeable, he retired to his northern Ohio home, Spiegel Grove. He remains there to this day, buried with his wife Lucy Hayes. It's a convenient stop off the Ohio Turnpike to see them, and on most days the place probably isn’t crowded.

Hayes, 19th President of the United States -- but whose claim to that office was by far the shakiest -- died this day in 1893.

“[In retirement] his qualms over the 1876 election never left him, but he rarely displayed signs that he felt guilty or embarrassed,” wrote Lloyd Robinson in The Stolen Election (1968). “He had tired to be a good President, and if he had failed, it was because stubborn, greedy men had opposed him… Deeply shaken, he rode in the funeral procession of his martyred successor, President Garfield, in 1881. Four years later, with ex-President Arthur beside him, Hayes took part in the final ceremonies for Ulysses S. Grant. Then, in 1886, it was Arthur who went to the grave, and Hayes rode in the carriage with President Cleveland at the funeral… His closing years were clouded, too. Alone among men who had lived in the White House, Hayes had come to power improperly, and every retelling of the story of 1876 wounded him.

“When he died… in his seventy-first year, he was laid to rest with the magnificent befitting a true President. Troops paraded; muffled drums were beat; President Cleveland stood with his head bared under the gray, wintry Ohio sky. The entire Ohio legislature was there, and so was Gov. William McKinley, himself marked for the White House and tragedy.”

The legacy of the Stolen Election of 1876 might have been bitter, but one thing more pleasant that Hayes started lives on -- the White House Easter Egg Roll (the 2004 roll is pictured with today's post). A short history of the roll is here.

January 16, 1888:

L.Q.C. Lamar, Cleveland Appointee, Confirmed by US Senate

Appointing chief justices of the United States and associate justices to the US Supreme Court is one of the president's important powers, but there's no way to know how much any given president will exercise that power until his term is over. The vagaries of death, illness and retirement mean that some long-serving presidents appoint only a few, while other short-timers appoint more.

George Washington, of course, appointed the most, since there was no Supreme Court when he took office. He appointed 10, or 11 if you count John Rutledge, a 1795 recess appointment to chief justice that the Senate refused to confirm. FDR would seem a natural for the second highest number of appointees, and indeed that's the case. He got nine, a full court's worth; no packing necessary in the long run.

The third-highest number of appointees is a surprise -- but also appropriate. The judicial-minded William Howard Taft, president only four years, nevertheless named six justices to the high court, including Chief Justice Edward White, whom Taft succeeded in the job in 1921.

Only four presidents missed the opportunity to appoint justices. William Henry Harrison barely had time to unpack his bags, much less make judicial appointments. Likewise, Zachary Taylor died before he could name any Supreme Court justices -- though Millard Fillmore, who didn't have much more time in office, got to appoint one, Associate Justice Benjamin Curtis. The remarkably luckless Andrew Johnson didn't have the opportunity either, though he served nearly an entire four-year term. He was so much at odds with the Senate that his appointments probably would have been problematic anyway. Finally, Jimmy Carter didn't appoint any justices, which was probably as much a function of good health and longevity among sitting justices in the late 20th century as anything else.

On January 16, 1888, Mississippian Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (pictured) was confirmed by the Senate as an associate justice. It was the cap of a remarkable career that saw Lamar in the antebellum US Congress, serve the Confederacy both in military and civilian capacities, and then return to the US Congress after the war. Lamar was the first of four justices appointed by President Cleveland, and he was recalled many years later in Profiles in Courage as a courageous Senator, especially for his eloquent eulogy of one-time Radical Republican and bitter enemy Charles Sumner in 1874. Short bio here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

January 15, 1876:

Eliza McCardle Johnson Dies

The "office" of first lady is often defined by the personality of the woman who "holds" it. Some first ladies are remembered for certain things, unfairly or not: Mary Todd Lincoln's extravagance, Eleanor Roosevelt's outspokenness, Jackie Kennedy's fashion sense. Others are as destined for obscurity as many of the presidents.

Such is the fate of Eliza McCardle Johnson, wife of President Andrew Johnson. Until recently he was assured a place in history as the only president to be impeached, and he's still the first, and has that cliff-hanger vote on conviction in the Senate to ensure an enduring memory. She, on the other hand, is not even a whisper in the historical imagination of this country. Even during her lifetime, she was rarely seen. "Aside from... two public appearances -- one at a reception for Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands and other a birthday party for her husband -- Eliza Johnson remained totally out of the public eye," says "Part of this was due to her health and part of it was due to the excessive amount of criticism the former First Lady, Mary Lincoln, had received from the public."

Historians have little to work with when it comes to Eliza Johnson. "That Eliza helped her husband along when he was a struggling taylor is certain," wrote Hans L. Trefousse in Andrew Johnson (1989). "Although she did not teach him how to read -- he was already literate -- she did assist him in his further education... Supporting him during the trying days of the Civil War, she and her children, marked as the family of a man considered an arch-traitor by the Confederates, for a time stayed behind in enemy territory. Later on, she again faithfully stood by his side during the ordeal of impeachment. In many ways, however, because of the absence of papers and letters from her, Eliza remains an elusive person, hidden from the public and thorough historical inquiry."

She died this day in 1876, only about six months after her husband.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

January 14, 1943:

Roosevelt Arrives in Casablanca

In early 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt traveled nearly 17,000 miles to attend the conference in Casablanca with Prime Minister Churchill. In those pre-jet days, and with Nazi submarines prowling the Atlantic, that meant by travel train from DC to Miami; and then by plane successively to Trinidad; Belem, Brazil; Bathurst (Banjul), the Gambia; and Casablanca, arriving on January 14. His return was equally circuitous.

That trip marked the first times a sitting president had flown in an airplane. Teddy Roosevelt had been adventurous enough to fly in one in 1910, but by then he wasn't president any more, so there was no danger that Charles Warren Fairbanks would suddenly become president due to equipment failure. FDR's plane to Casablanca, and thus the first "Air Force One" (though the term was coined later) was a Boeing 314 "Flying Boat," which PanAm had been using for commercial runs across the Atlantic and Pacific since 1939.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

January 13, 1885:

Schuyler Colfax Dies

If certain presidents have fallen into obscurity, what chance do vice presidents have to be remembered? Not much, it seems. A lot of people, at least those now over about 40 or so, have heard of Hubert Humphrey, 38th Vice President of United States. But that’s only because, comparatively, he died so recently: January 13, 1978.

Humphrey shares his date of death with Schuyler Colfax, 17th Vice President of the United States, who passed away in 1885 of a heart attack on a bitter cold day in Minnesota. Newspaper editor, one of the founding fathers of the Republican party, Radical Republican leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1869, he became was Grant’s VP during his first term. A success by virtually any standard, except posthumous fame, for he has none. Sic transit gloria mundi, Schuyler.

Colfax’s name is also usually linked with the Credit Mobilier scandal, something else that has left no enduring memory except among historians and enthusiasts. Though convicted of nothing, Colfax nevertheless left office in 1873 “under a cloud” as some of his short bios put it. That might have been the end of his political career, but he found another line of work that many former politicos practice to this day: public speaking. Reportedly, he got as much as $2,500 per speech, an enormous sum at the time, comparable to the take of top-dollar public speakers in our own time. He was on his way to an engagement at the time of his death.

Much more on Vice President Colfax is at the US Senate web site.

Friday, January 12, 2007

January 12, 1880:

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur Dies

Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur died this day in 1880. Still a young 42, and a prominent member of New York society in the Gilded Age, she took ill suddenly after the opera and lapsed into a coma, dying shortly afterward. Her husband, an attorney whom she married in 1859 and who until recently was customs collector for the Port of New York – a remunerative position if there ever was one – was away on business in Albany at the time.

Though greatly bereft, Chester Alan Arthur soldiered on that year, attending the Republican National Convention in Chicago as a supporter of Grant for a third term. That didn’t pan out, but Arthur ended up as the vice presidential nominee on the ticket, and he and James Garfield went on to victory in November. Arthur became 21st President of the United States after the lingering death of President Garfield in 1881.

Mrs. Arthur was one of only five women who have died before their husbands became president. Martha Jefferson, Rachel Jackson, Hannah Van Buren, and Alice Roosevelt (TR’s first wife) likewise were fated never to become first ladies. In Ellen Arthur’s case, with her penchant for entertaining, she probably would have been remembered as a most social first lady. Her biography is here.

She came from a prominent Virginia family. Her father was Capt. William Lewis Herndon of the US Navy, known the world over especially as an explorer of the Amazon Basin, leading an expedition there in 1851 on behalf of the US government (another achievement of the Fillmore administration, incidentally).

“Married and the father of one daughter, [Capt.] Herndon was slight, and at forty-three, balding; a red beard ran the fringe of his jaw from temple to temple,” wrote Gary Linder in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (1998). “Though he looked like a professor or a banker more than a sea captain, he had been twenty-nine years at sea, in the Mexican War and the Second Seminole War, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea. He knew sailing ships and steamers and had handled both in all weather. He was also an explorer, internationally known and greatly admired, who had seen things no other American and few white men had ever seen.”

Capt. Hendron also died famously, going down in September 1857 with his ship, the SS Central America, which floundered in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras and took with her more than 400 people and 21 tons of California gold to the bottom.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

January 11, 1852:

Death of Jane Knox Polk, Presidential Mother

Only three mothers of presidents lived longer than their sons, one of whom was Jane Knox Polk. She died on January 11, 1852, more than three years after James Knox Polk, 11th president of the United States. The only other presidential mothers to outlive their sons were Eliza Garfield and Rose Kennedy, both of whom lost their boys to assassins.

A combination of overwork and cholera seems to have done in President Polk. At 53, he died relatively young -- younger, in fact, that any other president who died of natural causes, and third youngest among all the presidents, living longer than James Garfield (49) and John Kennedy (46). Polk survived his term by a little more than three months.

According to the web site of the President James K. Polk State Historic Site in North Carolina: "The oldest of ten, Polk was raised on tales of the American Revolution by his father, a prosperous farmer. A pious Presbyterian, Polk's mother was said to be descended from the fiery Scottish religious reformer John Knox. Both parents instilled in their son a fierce patriotism, a keen interest in politics, and a deep religious faith."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

January 10, 1843:

The House Declines to Impeach John Tyler

John Tyler (in marble to the left) scored a number of presidential firsts without trying, the best known of which was his elevation from the vice presidency to the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841. Not so well known is that he was the object of a serious attempt at impeachment.

There had been talk of impeachment in Andrew Jackson's time, but ultimately that was just muttering against a powerful president who had made a lot of enemies. Jackson was censured by the Senate in 1834: a way for Senators to say "we don't like you" without any formal consequences. In the Tyler's case, it actually came to a vote by the House on January 10, 1843. The motion was defeated 127 to 83.

Writer Stirling Newberry had this to say about the matter:
"There have been four serious attempts at impeachment: Clinton and Nixon are both within living memory, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson has entered into legend, both because of its metaphorical significance, and because the outcome was so decisive for politics in America. But the fourth serious attempt is almost forgotten, though it was the model for the Andrew Johnson impeachment: John Tyler.  

"...The Whig Party, formed in response to what was perceived as Andrew Jackson's monarchical ways, found itself with a man as hard-willed as Jackson. When Tyler vetoed the Bank of the United States, which was the most important policy to the Whig Party, it precipitated a crisis within American governance.

"After expelling Tyler, the Whigs attempted to introduce an amendment that would have made a simple majority of Congress capable of over-riding a veto. When this failed, and when they lost control of Congress, they turned to impeachment, hoping that enough Democrats would join the motion. The articles accused Tyler of using the veto wrongly, and of lying to the American public, for abusing his power as President. As later scholars would determine, 'high crimes and misdemeanors' is constitutional language for 'abuse of power.'  

"The articles of impeachment failed, but they would leave behind a model which would be adopted in Johnson's case..." (The full article is here in pdf form.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

January 9, 1913:

Richard Nixon's Birthday

Light the candles and break out the party hats, today would have been the 94th birthday of Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th president of the United States. He was born in humble circumstances in Yorba Linda, Calif., a fact that can be fully appreciated by visiting the Nixon Presidential Library in that city. The small house in which he was born is now located there, mere steps away from President and Mrs. Nixon's gravesites.

On other days, such as August 9, the subject of Nixon's fall may be appropriate. On his birthday, Nixon ought to be given his due for the master politician that he was. Don't think so? Watch the entirety of the Checkers Speech (1952), which takes about 10 minutes.

Typically only clips from the speech are shown, especially those mentioning the dog Checkers. Certainly that's the most memorable part, but the speech is also interesting for Nixon's listing of his assets and liabilities, the subtext of which is, "I might be a US Senator and Vice Presidential candidate, but I'm a regular guy who doesn't have much and worries about money. And I'm too honest to take anything under the table."

Pat Nixon is watching nearby, and occasionally the camera pans to her. It may be the effect of a kinescope shown on the Internet, but she looks like a slightly animated wax model. Her subtext is "loyal wife and mother." At one point, he mentions that she's Irish, and "the Irish never quit." Just like Richard Nixon: "I'm not a quitter," he asserted about himself, a theme he returned to in August 1974, using almost the same words, but without reference to the Irish.

The speech is here. Note also the pride in his voice when he refers to his part in putting Alger Hiss in jail. I'll wager the pride was genuine.

Monday, January 08, 2007

January 8, 1815:

The Battle of New Orleans

Once upon a time, military glory was a path to the White House -- at least for some, such as Old Hickory. It's hard to imagine a commanding officer in any of the wars of the 21st century winning the kind of undying fame that Andrew Jackson earned by overseeing the lopsided Battle of New Orleans (8,000 British dead, a few dozen Americans), but maybe it's just as well.

Arguably, Andrew Jackson might have already earned enough glory to be a famous man even if word of the peace treaty had reached New Orleans earlier, and the two armies not clashed on "the Glorious Eighth of January." In 1814, he had defeated the Red Stick Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, effectively breaking the power of the Creek Nation in that part of the country.

Still, nothing like cleaning the clock of a British army to win your laurels. Like most battles, it was a complicated business, but especially important in the victory was that the Americans were able to rain fire down on the British regulars, who were the victims of a logistical oversight: they didn't have the ladders they needed to scale the Americans' earthworks. Oops. History turns on small things sometimes.

Read about the battle (if you have time); or listen to the song.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

January 7, 1800:

Millard Fillmore's Birthday

The name Millard Fillmore is practically a punchline all by itself. Other obscure 19th-century presidents may be obscure -- William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Chester Alan Arthur -- but they certainly have dignifed, presidential names. Millard Fillmore, on the other hand, sounds peculiar to modern ears, even though Millard was simply his mother's maiden name, a time-honored way to name children. So the man who signed the Compromise of 1850 and sent Commodore Perry to open Japan has items like this nonsense written about him.

Never mind. Buffalo, NY, remembers her favorite son. President Fillmore is first in line when it comes to the birthdays of the dead presidents, and every year the anniversary is acknowledged by the University at Buffalo.

This year's UB event was on the more convenient January 5, but there's another event on the 11th, according to a notice at

Millard Fillmore's Birthday Party
The Roycroft Inn

Join Millard Fillmore, who returns from Forest Lawn to provide his recap of political happenings over the past year on a local, state and federal level. This is political satire at its finest.

Event includes a reception, Know Nothing Beef Stew Buffet, entertainment and birthday cake.

Reservations are $20 per person at 652-8444. Event sells out quickly every year, so make yours today!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

January 6, 1853:

God’s Wrath Against President-elect Franklin Pierce?

January 6 was an eventful day in US presidential history. George Washington married Martha Dandridge Curtis on this day in 1759. Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919. Much less well known is the sad story of Benjamin Pierce, young son of Franklin Pierce, who died this day in 1853 in a horrible railway accident.

Franklin Pierce was president-elect at the time, having trounced Whig opponent Winfield Scott the previous November. Benjamin, 12, was traveling that day with his parents on the Boston & Maine noon express when an axle broke near Andover, Mass. The Pierces were riding in a coach that tumbled down an embankment. Benjamin’s parents survived; he did not.

Railroads were new and dangerous in those days, and 1853 was an especially bad year for railway accidents in the United States. Besides the Andover wreck, there were fatal accidents in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

It must have been a crushing blow for the Pierces, especially since Benjamin was the only living child of their three. Reportedly, Jane Pierce considered the accident the judgment of God, perhaps punishment for the sin of pride in reaching for such high office, which could not have helped Franklin’s state of mind going into the job. Also, he was an alcoholic. Besides that, the job was awful at that moment in history, as the divide between North and South grew increasingly bitter. Pierce’s presidency is generally considered an abysmal failure, and small wonder.

Friday, January 05, 2007

January 5, 1933:

Calvin Coolidge Dies

The man at the tiller during much of the Roaring ’20s was President Calvin Coolidge, even though he didn’t roar. “Silent Cal” died 74 years ago today at his home in Northampton, Mass., of coronary thrombosis at a relatively young 60. He had lived long enough, however, to see Herbert Hoover complete almost all of his term, the deepening of the Great Depression, and the landslide victory of FDR in the election of 1932.

Coolidge is receding from living memory at a fair clip now, toward the realm of obscure presidents. That’s too bad, because you have to like anyone about whom such entertaining anecdotes are told, though most of them are probably apocryphal. No point in repeating them here, since many web sites or articles or books dealing with President Coolidge are going to cite the usual-suspect bon mots of Dorothy Parker and all the rest (Wikipedia is as good a source for these as any, see "Slient Cal.")

History has a way of being revised and rethought, and so it is for Calvin Coolidge, at least for those few who pay him any mind. In a sympathetic and touching article originally published in Yankee magazine in 1996, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith posits that Coolidge struggled with deep depression after the death of his beloved second son, Calvin Jr., in 1924. He was able to mask it well, however, and so his suffering never entered the popular or even scholarly imagination about the president. (Besides, it’s more fun to quote Dorothy Parker.)

In another vein, columnist Robert Novak speculates that the nation and the world were worse for Coolidge’s decision not to run in 1928, an election he would have certainly won. Would he have done things differently than Hoover, even ameliorating the Depression with better decisions? Maybe. In any case, Coolidge offers a good deal more to think about than the taciturn New Englander stereotype that he’s been stuck with.

Two more things: songs that mention Coolidge. Who would have thought? Mentioned in passing, but he’s still in them. (There’s also the mention of “the Coolidge dollar” in “You’re the Top,” by Cole Porter, but that’s not exactly about the president.)

“Crazy Words, Crazy Tune," by Irving Aaronson and His Commanders, recorded when Coolidge was in office (Febraury 4, 1927).

“When Lindy Comes to Town,” by Al Stewart, released in 1995 on his Between the Wars album.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

January 4, 1787:

Birthday of Rutherford Hayes, Presidential Father

George W. Bush has been called many things, but he’s indisputably one of the few presidents whose father lived long enough to see him become president. The only other president who sired another president, John Adams, died famously on July 4, 1826, nearly simultaneously with Thomas Jefferson, living just long enough to see son John Quincy Adams take up his former position in 1825.

Otherwise, only a handful of other presidential fathers lived to see their sons’ inaugurations: Fillmore, Grant, Harding, Coolidge and Kennedy. (In Coolidge’s case, his father John Coolidge, a justice of the peace, swore him in upon word of President Harding’s death.)

Rutherford Birchard Hayes (pictured in his Union army days), 19th president and beneficiary of the Stolen Election of 1876, is at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of paternal longevity. He was the posthumous son of Rutherford Hayes, an Ohio storekeeper who had moved there from his native Vermont. The elder Hayes was born on January 4, 1787, and died July 20, 1822 -- a few months before the future president was born on October 4. Only two other future presidents were born posthumously: Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

January 3, 1777:

The Battle of Princeton

He wasn’t president of anything yet, and he was having a hard go of leading an army in rebellion against the might of the British Crown. But on the day after Christmas, 1776, George Washington famously commanded a sucker-punch surprise attack on a Hessian force at Trenton, NJ, capturing more than 800 of the surprised Germans while hardly losing a man.

Less well known is the Battle of Princeton, fought on January 3, 1777. (The pictured plaque at Princeton Battlefield State Park in New Jersey says: "Route of Washington's march by night from Trenton to Princeton and Victory, January 3, 1777.") The Battle of Trenton, though an immense psychological victory for the rebels, hardly settled matters in New Jersey. There had to be a follow-up battle, and, taking the initiative again, Washington decided to attack the British garrison at Princeton.

“It was a tremendously risky plan,” wrote Thomas Fleming in 1776: Year of Illusions (1975). “Washington was placing his entire army between two British armies, one commanded by Howe in New York, the other by Cornwallis in Trenton… but it had its advantages, too. Foremost… as Washington put it later, [was] “that it would avoid the appearance of a retreat.”

The Battle of Princeton was a bloody see-saw affair, with Washington himself in the line of fire part of the time. He was unhurt, and eventually the Americans prevailed, with some of the British regulars retreating intact, and others fleeing in disorder. Afterwards, some of the Americans looted the town of Princeton -- pay, after all, was pretty bad in the Colonial army.

According to Fleming, “Cornwallis had yielded to panic and marched his army all night from Princeton to New Brunswick… when no American attack [on New Brunswick] was forthcoming, it dawned on most members of the British army that they had been outfought, outgeneraled, and – worst of all – made to look ridiculous.

“Even more devastating was the impact of Washington’s success on the loyalists of New Jersey. The British high command… formed a defensive line along the Raritan River, with heavy concentrations of troops in Perth Amboy and New Brunswick. Elsewhere in the state, American rebels were in charge. Loyalists were arrested, imprisoned, and fined…”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

January 2, 1960:

John F. Kennedy Announces His Bid for the Presidency

Among people alive now, John Kennedy’s presidency and unfortunate death are completely encrusted with lore. Or shellacked with blarney, take your pick. It’s hard to imagine – or remember -- the man as a youngish US senator with a wink-wink nudge-nudge reputation that no one examined too closely.

On January 2, 1960, Sen. Kennedy, speaking in the US Senate Caucus Room, made a short speech announced that he was running for president. The full text is here, as well as a link to listen to it.

It was already the election year, which is a measure of the creep of the presidential-election cycle in more recent years. After all, John Edwards just announced his bid for the presidency in 2008, a year-and-change before the first primary. That might give candidates more time to raise money, but do voters really want to hear about it in odd-numbered, non-election years? (Vice President Nixon, incidently, announced his candidacy exactly a week after Sen. Kennedy.)

Kennedy, though backed by a formidable organization and a lot of his father’s money, didn’t have the nomination in the bag so early in the race. In fact, even by the opening of the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1960, he didn’t quite have the delegates he needed, the last time that was the case for a major party candidate seeking the nomination – another measure of how things have changed in less than 50 years.

Monday, January 01, 2007

January 1, 1772:

The Marriage of Thomas & Martha Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson had a wife. She’s part of the historical record, of course, but Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson is a shadowy figure in the historic imagination of the United States. For one thing, she didn’t live long enough to be a First Lady. In fact, she didn’t quite live to be 34, with her husband surviving her by nearly 44 years. Also, no portraits of her survive, beyond a silhouette (pictured) – making her literally a shadowy figure.

Then there’s the matter of Sally Hemings. A founding father (and Enlightenment thinker) and his slave mistress: now that’s a story with sex appeal, far eclipsing the Jefferson marriage in popular renown. But whatever happened between Thomas and Sally, it was still in the future when Thomas and Martha were married on January 1, 1772, at her father’s plantation, The Forest, near Williamsburg, Va.

It was a match within their class, he a landowner and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and she the daughter of a landowner and prominent attorney. Yet it’s astonishing how precarious life was, even for the upper class, in the days before public health or germ theory or any of the other medical advances we know well.

Martha was a young widow – her husband, Bathurst Skelton, had died in an accident (that’s a seriously deep bit of trivia, the name of Martha Jefferson’s first husband). Her son by Skelton died before he turned four years old. Thomas and Martha had five children, three of whom died in infancy, and one of whom died at 22 when Jefferson was president. And the stress of all those babies apparently helped push Martha herself into the grave on September 6, 1782.

A well-written short biographical sketch of Martha Jefferson appears at, even though technically she wasn’t a First Lady. It also contains a discussion of the complicated relationship between her father’s family, the Wayles, and the Hemings family, since it was Martha who brought Thomas into contact with them.