Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dead Presidents: Leap Day

February 29 comes along only once in four years, which might account for the fact that no Presidents or Vice Presidents of the United States were ever born or died on that day, though President John Tyler came within a few feet of death on February 28, 1844, when a 12-inch gun on the warship USS Princeton accidently exploded, killing two members of his cabinet, among others.

There have been a few bits of presidential history associated with Leap Day, however. On February 29, 1796, for example, President Washington announced that the Jay Treaty was in effect -- officially, the Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, between His Britannic Majesty; and The United States of America. (John Jay was the chief negotiator on the American side.) Among other things, the treaty provided for the end of the lingering British occupation of forts in the Northwest Territory; the settlement of compensation to U.S. ship owners whose vessels by the British during the Revolution; and the establishment of a commission to delineate part of the boundary with British North American (that is, the Canadas).

On February 29, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt formally appointed a seven-man commission -- the Isthmian Canal Commission, which reported at first to Secretary of War William Howard Taft -- to get on with the task of building the Panama Canal, one of the signal achievements of his presidency. The move came immediately after the brand-new Panamanian government, which had been helped into existence by the U.S.S. Nashville in late 1903, ceded control of the Canal Zone to the United States on February 23.

On February 29, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the second Neutrality Act, which renewed a previous act that banned trading in arms or war materials with all parties in a war, and clarified the status of Americans traveling on ships of belligerent powers -- at their own risk (everyone still recalled the Lusitania in those days). The '36 act also banned loans or credits to belligerents. Other neutrality acts were passed in the late '30s, for all the good they did in the early '40s in keeping the United States out of war.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Birth of the Republican Party

The Whig Party, never really a cohesive whole, fell apart in the aftermath of its loss in the election of 1852, when Democrat Franklin Pierce bested Whig Winfield Scott. The party had also lost its leading lights that year with the deaths of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The Free Soil Party formed in the late 1840s as a single-issue party, but failed to take the Whigs' place in national politics in the early 1850s.

Rather, former Whigs (like Abraham Lincoln) and those who had dallied with Free Soil (such as Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner) soon found a political home in the Republican Party. A gentlemen by the name of Alvan Earle Bovay (1818-1903) is credited with founding the party by calling for a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin in early 1854, in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That measure was then a bill (the "Nebraska" bill) pending before Congress that would allow a popular vote on whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories could have slavery, in contradiction to the Compromise of 1820.

"This meeting was held on Wednesday, March 1, 1854,: wrote A.F. Gilman of Ripon College in The Origin of the Republican Party in 1914. "What took place may be best expressed by the resolution that was adopted, which is as follows: 'Resolved, That of all the outrages hitherto perpetrated or attempted upon the North and freedom by the slave leaders and their natural allies, not one compares in bold and impudent audacity, treachery and meanness with this, the Nebraska Bill; as to the sum of all its villainies it adds the repudiation of a solemn compact held as sacred as the constitution itself for a period of thirty-four years.' "

Should the bill pass (which it did), the Ripon meeting further agreed that a new political party would be necessary to oppose it and the expansion of slavery. The meeting was not, of course, the only such meeting in the country, nor the only one to express those strong sentiments, but it's generally considered the first one out of the gate. Also, Bovay helped cement the name of the party with a timely letter to Horace Greeley, who endorsed the name in the June 24, 1854, issue of the highly influential Weekly Tribune.

The Republican Party has fielded a presidential candidate every election since 1856, claiming the prize 23 out of the last 39 elections.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What Manner of Man is Made Queasy by JKF on Church and State?

Sen. John Kennedy's presidential campaign speech to the Great Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 is in the news over 50 years later, in the context of presidential politics. The speech is, of course, on YouTube in the early 21st century.

About a minute into the speech, Kennedy said:

"Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured, perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

George Washington Chicken McNugget Put on eBay

As of the evening of February 26, 2012, the Rare "President George Washington Chicken McNugget" has 52 bids on eBay, with the current high bid coming in at $4,050. A photo of the item shows a fairly ordinary fast-food chicken nugget that, if you put your imagination to it, might look a little like the profile of George Washington on the quarter. (This image at is a better look at it.)

News reports over the weekend said that the nugget has been put up for sale by one Rebekah Speight, an Iowa woman who says she discovered it three years ago and kept it in her refrigerator as a curiosity. More recently, she decided to sell it to raise money for her church's summer camp. Initially, eBay balked -- it's an expired food item, and auction rules don't allow that -- but later the company said it would make an exception since the sale was for charity (and it also seems unlikely that anyone would eat it, especially after paying thousands for it).

The auction is going along well, but still needs a slogan. Maybe "First in war, first in peace, and first in the deep-fry vats of his countrymen."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

John Quincy Adams Dies

J.Q. Adams' presidency isn't particularly remembered as a success -- he wasn't the last president to face a hostile Congress -- but he was much else besides, including a highly talented diplomat and cabinet member in service of the young United States, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1831 until his death on February 23, 1848, two days after he had (presumably) had a stroke on the floor of that chamber.

During his tenure in Congress, Adams because a prominent opponent of slavery, though not strictly speaking an abolitionist (more that once he predicted correctly that only a civil war would eventually end the peculiar institution). In 1841, he famously argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Amistad case, a cause célèbre of the time.

At issue was the status of enslaved Africans, led by one of the number called Cinque, who had in 1839 taken control of the Spanish ship Amistad, on which they were being transported. The ship ended up in the United States, and, with the help of sympathizers, Cinque and the others fought for their freedom in American courts. The U.S. government, in particular the Van Buren administration, wanted the Africans turned over to the Spanish, presumably to please the Spanish government, but also to mollify U.S. slaveholders.

In 1997, Anthony Hopkins portrayed Congressman Adams in the film Amistad. The following is a dramatized take on Adams' appearance before the court in late February 1841, but true to the spirit of his arguments.

The full text of Adams' argument is here. The Africans won their freedom.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

George Washington's Birthday

In honor of the father of our country on the 280th anniversary of his birth, a gallery of Washington.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dedication of the Washington Monument

On the occasion of the dedication of the Washington Monument on February 21, 1885, Senator John Sherman of Ohio (brother of the Union general) said:

"I need not say anything to impress upon you the dignity of the event you have met to celebrate. The monument speaks for itself -- simple in form, admirable in proportions, composed of enduring marble and granite, resting upon foundations broad and deep, it rises higher than any other work of human art. It is the most imposing, costly, and appropriate monument ever erected in honor of one man. It had its origin in the profound conviction of the people, irrespective of party, creed, or race, not only of this country, but of all civilized countries, that the name and fame of Washington should be perpetuated by the most imposing testimonial of a nation's gratitude to its hero, statesman, and father."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Third Monday of February, the Song

Dead Presidents Daily will return after Presidents' Day, which of course is officially no such thing (see February 1). But never mind. In recent years, the day has been promoted relentlessly by advertisers, who sometimes prove themselves adept at establishing quasi-holidays.

Entertainers have fun with the concept, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Grant's Reply to Buckner

The surrender of Ft. Donelson in February 1862 propelled U.S. Grant from obscurity to a commander of note in the Union army, a career that would ultimately put him in the White House. When Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Confederate commander of the fort, sent a note to Grant requesting the terms of surrender, Grant -- famously, as it would turn out -- replied:

Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir: very respectfully

Your obedient servant
U.S. Grant

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mary Lincoln Portrait Not the Real Thing

A portrait formerly hanging in the Illinois governor's mansion, one long believed to be that of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, has been relieved as a forgery. Previously said to be painted specifically for Mrs. Lincoln to give to her husband, and tragically never presented to him because of his murder, the painting is now thought to be the work of an early 20th-century con man who fooled the Lincoln family into buying it not long after Todd Lincoln's death in 1926.

The fraudster, one Lew Bloom, apparently had enough painting skills to modify an existing portrait of an unknown woman to resemble the First Lady. He then invented a chain of ownership dating back to Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter who lived at the White House for a time in 1864 while he painted "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln."

Carpenter did not, however, paint the First Lady, as a conservator recently discovered when cleaning the painting. Lew Bloom apparently sold the fake to Jessie Lincoln, the president's granddaughter, for $2,000 or $3,000 -- a great deal of money at the time -- and Lincoln's great-grandson, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, ultimately gave the portrait to the Illinois State Historical Library in 1976.

In the late 1980s, the painting was sent to the governor's mansion. Now that it's known to be a fake, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will keep the painting. It might not be the artifact it was thought to be, but it still has an interesting Lincoln-inspired back story.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Each age gets the Lincoln it deserves. So the early 21st century clearly deserves a vampire-killing, action-hero Abe. The trailer for the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was released today.

Note that in one of the panning shots of the trailer, the Washington Monument is visible -- the completed monument that we know today. It might be too much to ask a fantasy like Vampire Hunter to get such niggling details right, but in Lincoln's day the monument wasn't finished. It looked like this.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, born February 12, 1809

"Lincoln" by Mark Lundeen, located in Springfield, Illinois.

In his campaign biography, Lincoln said of his early days: "I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families -- second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year.... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all."

Thursday, February 09, 2012

U.S. Senate Elects Richard Mentor Johnson Vice President

In February of 1837, the U.S. Senate did sometime it had never done before, and has never done since: it elected the Vice President of the United States. According to the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, if no vice presidential candidate has a majority of the electoral votes, "then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice."

A funny thing happened on the way to the election of 1836. Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, Democrat, received 170 of the 294 electoral votes, a clear majority and besting all of his Whig rivals. The Whigs hadn't had a national convention that year, and so state conventions nominated four separate candidates -- a recipe for losing.

Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky was on the ticket with Van Buren, mainly at the insistence of President Jackson, who perhaps thought Johnson would help win western votes. But not all of the electors liked Johnson, and only 147 voted for him, which was exactly half and thus one vote short of a majority. So the election was thrown into the Senate, where Johnson faced Whig Francis Granger of New York. Ultimately, Johnson prevailed in the Senate by a party-line vote of 33 to 16, and became the Ninth Vice President of the United States.

Why did Johnson face hostile electors? He had been in Congress for 30 years, both in the House and the Senate, but more importantly -- politically speaking -- he was a hero of the War of 1812, when he supposedly killed the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. It isn't clear that Johnson actually killed Tecumseh, but he used the story to his advantage anyway.

Damning, at least in the eyes of many slaveholders, was Johnson's unconventional behavior regarding his slave Julia Chinn. "Johnson never married," notes his U.S. Senate biography. "Family tradition recounts that he ended an early romance, vowing revenge for his mother's interference, after Jemima Johnson pronounced his intended bride unworthy of the family. He later lived openly with Julia Chinn, a mulatto slave raised by his mother and inherited from his father, until her death from cholera in 1833. Johnson freely acknowledged the relationship, as well as the two daughters born to the union, and entrusted Julia with full authority over his business affairs during his absences from Blue Spring Farm.

"The choice [of Johnson as vice presidential nominee] provoked bitter dissention in Democratic ranks... Van Buren's ally Albert Balch had previously warned Jackson that "I do not think from what I hear daily that the nomination of Johnson for the Vice Presidency will be popular in any of the slave holding states except Ky. on account of his former domestic relations," and a Van Buren correspondent later predicted that "Col. Johnson's... weight would absolutely sink the whole party in Virginia." Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron warned Jackson that Johnson was "not only positively unpopular in Tennessee... but affirmatively odious."

Nevertheless, Van Buren became president and Johnson vice president, both serving from 1837 to 1841, but losing their re-election bid to William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in 1840. One of the stranger things Johnson did as vice president was to return to Kentucky in 1839 and run a tavern for a while. Then again, vice presidents have little to do and Johnson was in chronic need of money, so a business venture probably wasn't that strange. He also took up with another slave woman.

The Senate bio continues: "By the spring of 1839, Amos Kendall reported to Van Buren on the vice president's latest venture: a hotel and tavern at White Sulphur Spring, Kentucky. He enclosed a letter from a friend who had visited 'Col. Johnson's Watering establishment' and found the vice president 'happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping -- even giving his personal superintendence to the chicken and egg purchasing and water-melon selling department.'

"Kendall wrote with consternation that Johnson's companion, 'a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespears swarthy Othello,' was 'said to be his third wife; his second, which he sold for her infidelity, having been the sister of the present lady.' Although one of the most fashionable in Kentucky, Johnson's resort also formed a source of considerable embarrassment for the administration."

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Lincoln's Farewell to Springfield

In early February 1861, President-elect Lincoln gave a short speech at the railroad station in Springfield, before leaving for Washington and an uncertain future. Lincoln's eloquence did not fail him.

My friends: One who has never been placed in a like position cannot undestand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than twenty-five years I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Here the most cherished ties of earth were assumed. Here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. To you, my friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am. All the strange checkered past seems to crowd upon my mind. To-day I leave you.

I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him shall be with and aid me I cannot prevail; but if the same almighty arm that directed and protected him shall guide and support me I shall not fail; I shall succeed. Let us pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To Him I commend you all. Permit me to ask that with equal sincerity and faith you will all invoke His wisdom and goodness for me.

With these words I must leave you; for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now wish you an affectionate farewell.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

James K. Polk Tuesday

Regardless of what you think of Glenn Beck or his minions -- Stu and Pat, in this case -- you have to give them credit for acknowledging a certain dead president in recent years. Namely, James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States, whose term (1845-1849) is now well over a century and a half ago.

"I can almost guarantee you will get this on no other show in America."

Monday, February 06, 2012

Once Upon a Lothario

It doesn't take much to get President Kennedy in the news, even though he's been dead for nearly 50 years. Did President McKinley have such a hold on the popular imagination in 1950? As well liked as McKinley was before his assassination, probably not.

Whatever the reason for the appeal, Kennedy's still got it. Note this photo taken during the summer of 2011 at Arlington National Cemetery. It depicts the crowd at the graves of the President and Mrs. Kennedy and two of their children. Not many other graves -- if any -- get this kind of attention, even at Arlington.

Yet another book about JKF will go on sale on Wednesday, but it's already in the news. The following is a sampling of headlines inspired on Monday by Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford.

Former intern: Book details Kennedy affair (CNN International)

Sex, drugs and JFK: memoir of a White House intern (The Independent)

Book details JFK affair with teen White House intern (

Grandmother details her teenage affair with JFK as a White House intern (The Australian)

Author says she was JFK's teen mistress (Baltimore Sun)

Former White House intern reveals JFK affair (TVNZ)

In New Book, Former White House Intern Details Her Alleged Affair With JFK (NPR)

5 Reasons JFK Was a Creepy, Lecherous Bastard (Gothamist)

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Washington's Wine Cooler Sells for $782K

Christie's auction house recently auctioned a four-bottle, silver wine cooler presented to Alexander Hamilton by George Washington in 1797. The item fetched $782,500, whch was more than expected. The buyer, according to Christie's, was Gary Hendershott, a Little Rock-based expert and dealer in American relics; direct descendants of Secretary Hamilton were the sellers.

Washington originally commissioned the piece in 1789 as one of four to be used for after-dinner entertaining. It is Sheffield-plated silver, a layered combination of silver and copper, rather than solid silver. Washington had instructed Gouvernor Morris, whose task it was to outfit the president's house in Philadelphia, to "avoid extravagance" in procuring such items. Washington knew he was setting precedents for his new office, and didn't want monarchical overtones.

“I think it of very great importance to fix the Taste of our Country properly, and I think Your Example will go very far in that respect," Morris wrote to Washington. "It is therefore my Wish that every Thing about you should be substantially good and majestically plain; made to endure.”

And so it has. Washington bought the coolers from the federal government at the end of his presidency, for his own use at Mt. Vernon; sold another; and gave the remaining one to his close friend Hamilton. Washington wrote a letter to go with the gift, and in the mid-19th century, Hamilton's descendants had the contents of the letter engraved on the wine cooler.

“My dear Sir, Not for any intrinsic value the thing possesses, but as a token of my sincere regard and friendship for you, and as a remembrance of me, I pray you to accept a wine cooler for four bottles. It is one of four which I imported in the early part of my late administration of the Government, two of which were ever used. I pray you to present my best wishes, in which Mrs. Washington joins me to Mrs. Hamilton, and the family, and that you would be persuaded that with every sentiment of the highest regard, I remain your sincere friend, and affectionate humble servant: Geo. Washington.”

A photo of the piece and more about it is here.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Racing Presidents Tryouts

Baseball season is still a couple of months away, but the Washington Nationals are determined to be ready with newly recruited Racing Presidents. According to the team's web site, "The Washington Nationals are seeking part-time, seasonal staff to perform as the award-winning Racing Presidents. Each runner will wear a costume depicting one of the four Mount Rushmore presidents and race around Nationals Park while thousands cheer. Presidents will also pose for photos, sign autographs, and appear at select outdoor events."

Applicants must be between 5'7" and 6'6" and be at least 18 years old. They must also be able to run from center field to home plate -- about 200 yards -- in 40 seconds, and be able to stand wearing a costume that weighs about 45 lbs. for the duration of a game.

The deadline for applications is February 10, and there will be tryouts by invitation only, the team stresses, on February 18. So no wise guys in Millard Fillmore or William Howard Taft costumes need show up uninvited. The Racing Presidents web page is here, including photos. There are also numerous videos of the Racing Presidents racing, such as this one.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Dead Presidents: February

February has so many important presidential birthdays that more than 40 years ago it landed Presidents Day under the terms of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Except that there's no mention of "Presidents Day" or "Presidents' Day" or "President's Day" in the law, though the idea had been floated in Congress (as "Presidents' Day").

The official name of the federal holiday remains "Washington's Birthday," though of course to complicate things further, some states do have an official Presidents' Day holiday -- or some variation of that, see below -- which happens to be the same day as the federal holiday, the third Monday of February.

The holiday is "President's Day" in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. It's "Lincoln/Washington/Presidents' Day" in Arizona; "George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day" (who?) in Arkansas; and "Presidents' Day" in Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont. Maine calls it "Washington's Birthday/President's Day," while it's "Presidents Day" in Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and New Jersey. The holiday is "Lincoln's and Washington's Birthday" in Montana; "Recognition of the birthday of George Washington" in North Dakota; "Washington and Lincoln Day" in Utah, and "George Washington Day" in Virginia.

It should also be noted that the third Monday in February can never be February 22, the New Style date on which the adult George Washington celebrated his birthday. The third Monday can only be from February 15th to the 21st, which explains the anomaly in some years of having Washington's birthday celebrated on a Monday a week ahead of his birthday (the 15th) rather than a week later on his actual birthday.

One more thing: George Washington, son of Augustine and Mary Washington, was actually born on February 11, 1731, Old Style. After the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the British Empire in 1752, Washington changed the date to be mathematically correct, and the year to conform to the new custom of starting the year on January 1.

Also born in February: Ronald Reagan (6th) and William Henry Harrison (9th), and of course Abraham Lincoln (12th), who is honored on his birthday with a holiday in a few states. Woodrow Wilson died on February 3 and John Quincy Adams died on the 23rd.

Among Vice Presidents of the United States, the dead Aaron Burr and Henry Wilson were born in February (the 6th and 16th, respectively). The living Dan Quayle celebrates his birthday on February 4. Vice President Charles Curtis is the only veep to die in February, on the 8th.