Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February 28, 1844:

President Tyler Cheats Death

Much of official Washington took a demonstration cruise on the new warship USS Princeton, pride of the US Navy, on the second to last day of February 1844, an unseasonably warm late-winter day. The guests aboard the steamer, the first in the Navy driven by a screw propeller instead of a paddlewheel, included the 10th president of the United States, John Tyler, members of his Cabinet and Congress (including Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri), military officers, journalists and even former First Lady Dolley Madison.

At two points along the Potomac, the ship fired its mighty 12-inch “Peacemaker” gun, which could hurl a cannonball five miles. After lunch, while the president was still below deck, the gun was readied for another firing. “The president started up the ladder to observe the shot but paused to listen to his son-in-law, William Waller, sing a patriotic ditty about 1776,” wrote Ann Blackman in Navy History magazine (September 2005). “Just as the young man came to the word ‘Washington’ in the lyrics, the great gun exploded, hurling fiery iron in all directions.

“The ship trembled, and a dense cloud of white smoke smothered the deck, making it almost impossible to see or breathe. According to the editor of the Boston Times, an eyewitness, when the smoke cleared, dead bodies and detached arms and legs littered the deck. The blast had killed Secretary of State Upshur; Secretary of the Navy Gilmer; Virgil Maxcy, the American chargĂ© d'affaires to Belgium; Julia Gardiner's father [she later married President Tyler, who was a widower]; Beverly Kennon, the Navy's chief of construction; and the president's personal valet, a slave named Armistead.” The entire article is here.

The vice president of the United States was nowhere near the site of the accident, because in fact there was no vice president at the time. Tyler had succeeded to the presidency after history’s briefest tenure as vice president, upon the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841. Had Tyler died aboard the Princeton, who would have become president (or possibly acting president)?

Willie Person Mangum of North Carolina, that’s who (pictured). He was president pro tem of the US Senate at the time, and under the succession law in force, next in line since there was no vice president. He’d served in the House and the Senate, was an ally of Henry Clay, and his politics had evolved from Jacksonian Democrat to anti-Jacksonian to Whig. His political career ended at about the same time as the dissolution of the Whig Party in the early 1850s, and he died in 1861 shortly after his only son was killed at the First Battle of Manassas.

February 27, 1951:

Ratification of the 22nd Amendment

Minnesota ratified the 22nd amendment to the US Constitution on this day in 1951, the 36th of the 48 states to do so, and thus presidents were limited to two terms or, if they had succeeded to the office sometime in the middle of a term, no more than two terms and two additional years of someone else's term. Thus, as things now stand, no one can be president more than 10 years.

"The 22nd Amendment... has frequently been described as a reaction to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt," wrote Thomas H. Neale of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress in the monograph, "Presidential and Vice Presidential Terms and Tenure" (2001). "The amendment was a top priority for the 80th Congress (1947-1948), the first to be controlled by Republicans since 1931. Debate on the proposal was the occasion of considerable rancor, as some Democrats claimed it was both undemocratic and an act of posthumous revenge against Roosevelt, while Republicans argued their goal was the prevention of excess concentration of power in the hands of one person. The idea of term limits was not new, however: one scholar notes that 270 amendments to limit presidential tenure had been proposed prior to 1947. Moreover, the measure passed both houses by wide margins, and with some degree of Democratic support."

And, it should be added, three-fourths of the states ratified it over about four years. It's possible that Congressional ire at FDR played a part in the amendment, but it's unlikely that all those state legislatures shared it. Still, the amendment doesn't sit well in some quarters. "Proposals for repeal of the 22nd Amendment have been advanced on several occasions since its ratification," according to Neale. "These proposals have usually been offered during the second term of a President who has enjoyed a degree of success or popularity. Advocates of repeal assert that a popular or successful two-term President should be able to serve additional terms... [however] none of these proposals received any action beyond pro forma committee referral."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

February 26, 1887:

Grover Cleveland Alexander's Birthday

Baseball Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander undoubtedly came from a Democratic household, though the short baseball bios of the pitching great don't mention it. In any case, he was named after a sitting Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, who was in his first term in 1887 and a hero to party faithful for capturing the White House for the National Democracy the first time since before the Civil War.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has this to say about Alexander, who career wasn't all together happy: "Suffering from epilepsy, haunted by his experiences in combat during World War I and shadowed by the dark side of alcoholism, Grover Cleveland Alexander was able to win 373 games during a 20-year major league career, the third highest total in major league history. He led the league in ERA on four occasions, wins in six different seasons, complete games six times and shutouts during seven campaigns. Alexander also won 30 or more games three consecutive seasons."

Curiously, Alexander's life was the subject of a biopic in 1952, a couple of years after he died. Ronald Reagan played Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

February 25, 1864:

Anna Harrison Dies

Anna Harrison was first lady as briefly as her husband, William Henry Harrison, was president -- all of a month, and she wasn't even in Washington any of that time. She was ill that winter, and eschewed the difficulties of travel from Indiana to the East Coast to attend her husband's inauguration.

According to, "In sending her daughter-in-law Jane Harrison in her stead, it is not clear whether Anna Harrison did so to at least ensure that there would be a female presence and companion for the new President at the Inauguration as they anticipated his greeting thousands of well-wishers for him... or to serve at all White House functions. By education and experience, Anna Harrison was well-qualified to serve as hostess herself. No primary sources indicate her intentions. She was in good health and preparing to leave by stagecoach from Ohio to Washington when a courier arrived at the Harrison farm with the shocking news that the President had died. Anna Harrison remained in Ohio since she would not have arrived in time for the funeral services and burial of her late husband in Washington, D.C. had she attempted the arduous and lengthy trip there."

Anna Harrison also has the distinction of being grandmother of a president, though she did not live to see it. The son of her son John Scott Harrison -- she and William Henry had 10 children all together -- was Benjamin Harrison, who would be elected president in 1888.

February 24, 1868:

Andrew Johnson is Impeached

Several generations of school kids learned, right down to 1998, that the only president ever impeached was Andrew Johnson. He has lost that distinction, but the story of a vindictive Congress colliding with a bullheaded president, against the agonizing backdrop of Reconstruction, still resonates. Besides, there was very little drama in the US Senate trial of Bill Clinton -- not even a simple majority voted to convict. In Johnson's case, of course, the entire matter came down to one vote.

"Enormous crowds were milling about the Capitol, where that Monday [February 24, 1868] the lucky holders of tickets to seats in the tightly packed galleries had a field day," wrote Hans L. Trefousee in Andrew Johnson (1989). "After listening to speech after speech, they witnessed what they had come to see, the passage of [Rep. John] Covode's resolution impeaching the president of high crimes and misdemeanors by a strict party vote of 128 to 47. Then the House appointed a committee to draw up specific charges.

"While these dramatic events kept the spectators at Capitol Hill spellbound, the president was quietly taking dinner with Colonel Moore [William Moore, his secretary]. When the news of the House vote was brought over to the White House, he took it very calmly, simply remarking that he thought many of those who had voted for impeachment felt more uneasy over the position in which they had put themselves than he did in the one in which they had put him. As he had already told the reporter from the Washington Express earlier in the day, he was confident that 'God and the American people would make all right and save our institutions.' After all, he had merely wanted to bring the matter of the Tenure of Office Act before the Supreme Court. If this argument was somewhat disingenuous -- he was really interested in deciding a political question as well -- it made for good reading."

Friday, February 23, 2007

February 23, 1848:

John Quincy Adams Dies

Only two former presidents have served in the US Congress after their presidencies. John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, was the first to do so. He was a Whig Congressman from 1831 until his death in 1848, representing a Massachusetts district centered on Plymouth. (Andrew Johnson returned to the US Senate shortly before his death in 1875.)

He was also the first president to have a middle name. Before the Civil War, only two other presidents did: William Henry Harrison and James Knox Polk.

There are no photographic images of any of the five presidents before John Quincy Adams. Late in his life, he posed for the daguerreotype reproduced above, becoming the earliest president to leave behind a photographic image of himself.

An entry in The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography by Charles A. Howe describes President and Rep. Adams final days: "Near the end of his life he summed up his personal credo in these few words: 'I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious.'

"On the afternoon of February 21, 1848 John Quincy Adams was, as usual, at his desk in the House of Representatives. He had voted 'No' on a bill that would have commended veterans of recent battles in the war with Mexico and was trying to rise to speak, when he suddenly collapsed. Carried to the Speaker's private chamber in the Capitol, he lingered on for two days. By the time Louisa [his wife] got to his bedside, he was unable to recognize her. It was reported that the last words he uttered were either, 'This is the end of earth, but I am content,' or, 'This is the last of earth-- I am composed.'

"Adams would have been amazed at the national outpouring of mourning that followed his death; thousand filed through the Capitol to view his bier. Funeral ceremonies were held in the House, after which the body was carried by train to Boston, where a memorial service was held in Faneuil Hall. At the service in Quincy, the Rev. William Lunt, Adam's pastor and friend, preached on the text, 'Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.' "

Thursday, February 22, 2007

February 22, 1732:

George Washington's Birthday

Today's the birthday of the dead president who made all the others possible, George Washington: planter, surveyor, land speculator, soldier, revolutionist, general, politician, president.

He inhabits the dollar bill, the quarter, and many stamp issues. A state, major city, 31 US counties and countless other places are named for him. His monument stands tall in DC, and he wears a toga at the Smithsonian (pictured, a 19th-century work by sculptor Horatio Greenough). A large body of lore is still told and retold about him, even though much of it is acknowledged nonsense: wooden teeth, young George and his cherry tree, and so forth.

Usually, the legend of the cherry tree is shortened for modern audiences, but the following is the full paragraph, as created by Mason Locke Weems in A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington not long after Washington died. The "she" he referred to is an unnamed female relative that supposedly spent time with the boy Washington.

"When George," said she, "was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? " This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."--"Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

Ours is a more skeptical age, and such tales can't be told with a straight face. And yet, such is the heft of George Washington that, 275 years after he was born, the fate of his tent is considered newsworthy. Skeptical? Google "George Washington's Tent." Among the articles that come up are this one from the New York Times.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

February 21, 1972:

Nixon Goes to China

The day before Washington’s actual birthday, New Style, offers many presidential and near-presidential anniversaries. On February 21, 1856, for instance, the American Party – better known as the Know Nothings – approved their nativist, anti-Catholic platform (“Americans must rule America…” it said, among other things). Millard Fillmore, who didn’t want to leave the White House in 1853, was that now-notorious party’s standard-bearer.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson gave Secretary of War Edwin Stanton his walking papers, precipitating a showdown with Congress that the president very nearly lost.

In 1885, in the waning days of Chester A. Arthur’s presidency, the Washington Monument, so long delayed, was at last dedicated.

In 1972, Nixon arrived in China. “International diplomacy can sometimes come down to the most mundane details,” wrote Alexander Burns in American Heritage magazine on the trip. ”On February 21, 1972, President Richard Nixon prepared to get off his plane in Beijing and he was faced with a crucial decision. Should he take off his overcoat or leave it on? When his staff informed him that Chou En-lai, the Chinese premier, was waiting on the tarmac with his coat securely on, Nixon decided not to remove his own. He hardly wanted to be showing off American superiority in braving the cold. And so Nixon descended from Air Force One to begin a diplomatic visit that would reshape the state of international affairs.”

February 20, 1912:

Muriel Humphrey's Birthday

First Lady of the United States isn't an obscure "office," but the Second Lady -- as the wife of the vice president is occasionally called -- is considerably more so. Today is Muriel Humphrey's birthday, and so an appropriate moment to recall the spouses of the vice presidents (all wives so far, but someday the list will surely include husbands too).

Thus far there have been 38 second ladies, beginning with Abigail Adams in 1789. Six vice presidents had no wives during their terms because they were widowers; one -- William R. King -- because he'd never married. The last time there was no second lady was during Charles Curtis' vice presidency, since his wife Annie Curtis had died about five years before he took office.

As for Muriel Humphrey, she was born Muriel Fay Buck in South Dakota, attended Huron College, and married the future veep in 1936. After he died in early 1978, the governor of Minnesota appointed her to fill his Senate seat for most of the rest of that year. She declined to run in her own right -- after a life in politics with the Happy Warrior, she said she was tired of it. She remarried and lived in retirement until her death in 1998.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 19, 2007:

"Presidents Day"

Calendars, school schedules, advertisers, newscasters, and a handful of states call it "Presidents Day." The federal government, however, calls it Washington's Birthday. It's been a federal holiday on the third Monday of February since 1971, when Congress moved it, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays, and created Columbus Day as another Monday holiday. Before 1971, logically enough, the holiday called Washington's Birthday coincided with his actually birthday, February 22, and had since 1880, in the time of President Hayes.

In any case, it's a holiday here at DPD. Until tomorrow, this is a fine article about Washington's birthday and the Monday holiday law published a few years ago by the National Archives.

Monday, February 19, 2007

February 18, 1861:

Jefferson Davis Becomes President of the Confederacy

Provisional president, actually, since the CSA was newly organized and elections wouldn't be held until October 1861. Davis won those handily, since he was unopposed, and began a six-year term in February 1862, as specified under the spanking-new Confederate constitution. In it, the president was limited to a single six-year term. By 1868, of course, the CSA was no more, and so Davis remains the one and only president of the Confederacy.

Mexican War hero, US senator and secretary of war -- it's conceivable that without the sectional crisis, Davis might have become president of the United States. But just like another man of presidential possibility before him, Sam Houston, he was destined to be president of something else.

The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, published still fairly close to events -- closer than we are now to World War II -- had the following to say about Davis' selection for that post. Note that the word pathetic has shifted some since 1911, however, meaning "arousing pathos" then, not pitiful as it does now.

"When his state had passed the ordinance of secession he resigned his [US Senate] seat, and his speech on the 21st of January was a clear and able statement of the position taken by his state, and a most pathetic farewell to his associates. On the 25th of January 1861 Davis was commissioned major-general of the forces Mississippi was raising in view of the threatened conflict. On the 9th of February he received the unanimous vote of the Provisional Congress of the seceded states as president of the 'Confederate States of America.' He was inaugurated on the 18th of February, was subsequently, after the adoption of the permanent constitution, regularly elected by popular vote, for a term of six years, and on the 22nd of February 1862 was again inaugurated. He had not sought the office, preferring service in the field."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

February 17, 1801:

The US House Elects Thomas Jefferson President

On February 17, 1801, the US House of Representatives, after a week of fruitless balloting, finally elected Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States. The 1800 electoral vote had, unexpectedly, tied at 73 for Jefferson, 73 for Aaron Burr (the Democratic-Republican vote), 65 for John Adams, 64 for Charles Pinckney, and one for John Jay (the Federalist vote). Under the rules originally established by the US Constitution, each elector cast two votes, but without distinction as to which was for president or vice president. Whomever received a majority of votes was elected president; the second largest number won the vice presidency.

With that in mind, the Federalists had one of their number cast a ballot for John Jay, to allow John Adams the higher number. The Democratic-Republicans had planned to follow the same strategy, but unaccountably did not.

"I thought you were supposed to refrain from voting for Burr."

"Me, Sir? Didn't you receive my message?"

So the election fell to the House of Representatives -- a lame-duck body controlled by Federalists who had to select among two members of the opposition. Alexander Hamilton, though a Federalist among Federalists, was instrumental in the eventual election of Jefferson because he considered him the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr. No doubt this added fuel to Burr's hatred of Hamilton, with well-known deadly consequences a few years later.

The country has had few other presidential elections as deeply contentious as that of 1800, though it would be topped in that regard in 1860, much to the nation's sorrow. "The presidential election of 1800 was an angry, dirty, crisis-ridden contest that seemed to threaten the nation's very survival," wrote Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale, in the September 2004 issue of History Now. "A bitter partisan battle between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson, it produced a tie between Jefferson and his Republican running mate, Aaron Burr; a deadlock in the House where the tie had to be broken; an outburst of intrigue and suspicion as Federalists struggled to determine a course of action; Jefferson's election; and Burr's eventual downfall... It also pushed partisan rivalry to an extreme, inspiring a host of creative and far-reaching electoral ploys. As a sense of crisis built, there was even talk of disunion and civil war, and indeed, two states began to organize their militias to seize the government if Jefferson did not prevail."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

February 16, 1812:

Jeremiah Jones Colbath’s Birthday.

As a vice president of the United States, Jeremiah Jones Colbath has a number of distinctions. In first place, the nation did not know him as Vice President Colbath – rather, he was Henry Wilson by that time, having changed his name as a young man. Apparently he despised his father, and the name he had been given.

He was also one of the few vice presidents born dirt poor (the other would be Andrew Johnson). While quite young, he learned shoemaking, and became a shoe manufacturer, but it was also a time when a talent for oratory could get you noticed, and eventually Wilson rose in Massachusetts politics on the strength of his speaking talents as a particularly ardent opponent of slavery. He was a US senator from Massachusetts from 1855 to 1873, serving as chairman of the Senate committee on military affairs during the Civil War, a most important position.

He was President Grant’s second vice president, replacing Schuyler Colfax on the ticket in 1872, which coasted to an easy win over Horace Greeley. Since Grant, too, did not use his birth-name – Hiram Ulysses Grant – it was the only time that both the president and vice president were known by names they weren’t given at birth.

Vice President Wilson suffered a stroke in 1873 and did not survive to the end of his term, dying in his office in the Senate on November 22, 1875. Death in office was a frequent fate of vice presidents before the 1920s: George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry and William King had all done so before Wilson, and Thomas Hendricks, Garret Hobart and James Sherman would do so afterwards (no veep has died in office since Sherman in 1912, however).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15, 1933:

Giuseppe Zangara Tries to Assassinate FDR

The concentration of so much power in the hands of the executive of the United States has an unfortunate side effect: an assassin can change everything. It has happened four times in 200-plus years, and there have been a number of other close calls.

Franklin Roosevelt very nearly became a footnote in American history -- the man elected in 1932 but shot down before he could serve. What, people would later ask, would he have done differently than John Nance Garner, 32nd president of the United States, who came to office in the depths of the Depression?

"At about 9:15 [pm] on Wednesday, February 15, 1933, during a crowded political rally in Miami's Bayfront Park, Giuseppe Zangara [pictured], an unemployed Italian immigrant bricklayer, fired five pistol shots at the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the president-elect," wrote Blaise Picchi in The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara (1998). "Although no more than 25 feet away from his target, his shots went wild, missing Roosevelt by inches, and hitting five bystanders, one of whom was Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago. Most of the witnesses agreed that Zangara's first shot was free, clean and unobstructed. This little bricklayer from Calabria could have changed the history of the United States, if not the world.

"What actually saved Franklin Roosevelt's life was probably the fact that Giuseppe Zangara stood only five feet, one inch tall tall. He could not see over the heads of the crowd, although his first shot, at least, was unimpeded [he was standing on a chair]..."

Mayor Cermak died of his wounds on March 6, and with a rapidity inconceivable today, Zangara was sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair for murder, and did so on March 20 -- five weeks after the shooting.

Why did Zangara do it? Some speculated that he had ties to the mob, and was really gunning for Cermak. Idle speculation, as it turns out, for a number of reasons. For one thing, a real mob hit man would surely have found a more private place to commit his murder. Otherwise he would have been an odd choice to carry out such a hit: Zangara was nearly destitute, in constant pain (perhaps severe ulcers, but no one knows) and probably delusional.

"In retrospect, one thing seems clear: Zangara wanted to die," Picchi wrote, offering a more informed opinion. "This seems to have been something everyone overlooked at the time... today, psychologists recognize a phenomenon known as 'suicide by police' in which a person provokes the police into killing him...

"It is conceivable that when, the day after buying the gun, Zangara learned about Roosevelt's visit, he decided that he could kill two birds with one stone: commit suicide and at the same time become famous as a champion of the downtrodden."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

February 14, 1891:

William Tecumseh Sherman Dies

Sherman was never president of the United States, though a good many Republicans in the 1884 thought he would have made a fine candidate for that office. He had retired the year before as commanding general of the United States Army and was still a household name -- and at least in the North, admired for his part in the war.

Sherman was having none of it. Perhaps it was because he'd seen how vexed his former commander US Grant had been by the presidency. More likely, a visceral dislike of politics kicked in at the idea of running for president. In any case, he answered the suggestion that he run with the definitive statement of a non-candidate, one that echoes down the century and more since then: "If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve."

Instead, he lived in retirement in New York City until his death, attending the theater, painting, making dinner speeches when he was a mind to. As for the election of 1884, James G. Blaine, former senator and secretary of state, was the Republican nominee. President Arthur, who had succeeded to the office after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, chose not to seek the nomination either, probably because of illness. The Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, who won in a tight race against Blaine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February 13, 1849:

Polk Longs for Private Life

The presidency has had a way of wearing men down. Often, the stresses of office are visible on their faces toward the end of their terms, and in some cases the presidency seems to have ruined the officeholder's health. Others have articulated their relief at leaving office, and a scattering of those thoughts have been preserved for posterity.

On February 13, 1849, James K. Polk wrote the following in his diary: "I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and become a sovereign. As a private citizen, I will have no one but myself to serve, and will exercise a part of the sovereign power of the country. I am sure I will be happier in this condition than in the exhalted station I now hold."

James Buchanan, after relinquishing his post to Abraham Lincoln, supposedly told him:"If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his home], you are a happy man indeed."

And US Grant, ever the succinct communicator, said this about leaving office: "I never wanted to get out of a place as much as I did to get out of the presidency."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

February 12, 1809:

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

There's no counting the number of writings about the 16th president of the United States, so vast is the amount. Instead of adding anything to that total, today's posting will be by Mr. Lincoln himself, writing in 1859.

"I was born February 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 Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon counties, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Va., to Kentucky, about 1781 or 2 where, a year or two later, he was killed by Indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham and the like....

"If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes -- no other marks or brands recollected."

February 11, 1731, O.S.:

George Washington's Birthday, Old Style

As a lad and a young man, George Washington marked the anniversary of his birth on the 11th of February. That was what the calendar said when he was born. Great Britain and her colonies were using the Julian calendar in those days, 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and moreover dating the New Year from March 25. Hence he was born on Febuary 11, 1731, according to contemporary reckoning.

By the early 18th century, the British use of the Julian calendar was at odds with much of the Continent, which used the Georgian. In writings of the period, very often dates were dual: O.S. and N.S. for Old Style and New Style. Washington's birthday, then, would have been February 22, 1732 N.S. and February 11, 1731 O.S. Both were correct.

In 1751, Parliament finally got around to aligning Britain with the Gregorian calendar, as well as moving New Year's Day to January 1, effective in 1752. This site isn't the place for a detailed discussion of the history of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, but much more can be found about the change in British dating systems here and (amazing what's on the Internet) the text of the act of Parliament that made the change.

Some sources say Washington continued to celebrate February 11, others that he made the switch to be mathematically correct. In any case, New Style has won out in the long run, and school kids learn (or ought to) that Washington's birthday is February 22. But on the 11th, there should be a nod to the original birthdate of the Father of Our Country.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

February 10, 1967:

Ratification of the 25th Amendment

The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified 40 years ago today by the requisite three-quarters of the states, has some mileage on it. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford both used it to appoint vice presidents, and both George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been, briefly, acting presidents under its provisions.

The amendment is long and detailed for a constitutional text, but part of it deals with a tricky question: what to do if a president is critically wounded for a long time like Garfield, or critically ill for months on end like Wilson, or just a loony (a term not used in the amendment). For most of the history of the Republic, muddling through was the approach to presidential incapacity, but in the nuclear age, and especially after John Kennedy was murdered, that didn't seem like such a good idea. Books and movies have made considerable hay about the potential for presidential succession shenanigans under the 25th amendment, often involving a scheming vice president or other official in the line of succession, but in practice those invoking the amendment have been exceeding circumspect.

The amendment also clarified the vice presidency. Originally the Constitution did not, in fact, specify that the vice president becomes president upon a vacancy in the top office. A case could be made for an acting presidency, based on the language of the document. John Tyler did not interpret it that way, however, and the precedent stuck for Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman and Lyndon Johnson. The 25th amendment explicitly says that the vice president will become president, formalizing the precedent.

There was also the issue of a vacant vice presidency. In between the time that Washington took office and the ratification of the 25th amendment, the vice presidency was vacant for a total of more than 37 years, either because a vice president had become president, or a veep had died in office. The amendment was designed to cut down on the vacancy periods in the number-two spot, and so far it has. In the last 40 years, the office has been vacant only about six months. Had it not been in force in 1974, Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma would have become acting president.

Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana (pictured) is considered the architect of the 25th amendment, though generally speaking the 1960s was one of those periods in which the nation was receptive to changing the Constitution -- as it had been during Reconstruction and during the progressive age of the 1910s. Bayh was chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, and also succeeded in getting the 26th amendment rolling, thereby lowering the voting age to 18. He had less luck with two other constitutional projects, the Equal Rights Amendment and the abolition of the Electoral College.

Friday, February 09, 2007

February 9, 1773/1814:

The Birthdays of William Henry Harrison and Samuel J. Tilden

Two sets of presidents share the same birthday: James K. Polk and Warren G. Harding on November 2 (1795 and 1865, respectively) and Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson on December 29 (1808 and 1856, respectively). But for a twist of electoral fate in 1877, however, February 9 would have been another such shared-birthday: William Henry Harrison (1773) and Samuel J. Tilden (1814).

Though the presidency didn't really work out for either of these men -- one won the prize, then dropped dead, while the other had it stolen from him -- in terms of posthumous fame, they haven't done badly. They're fairly large footnote characters in American history for exactly those things, dying in office and being denied office.

But there's so much more. Harrison was instrumental in the settlement of the Northwest Territories, both as a military and political leader; and his campaign in 1840 anticipated much in modern US electoral politics. His party, the Whigs, "flooded the electorate with posters and badges extolling the virtues of their colorful, down-home 'log cabin and hard cider' candidate, the hero of Tippecanoe," notes the Harrison biography published by the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. "In their image remaking of Harrison, the Whigs misrepresented him to the electorate. Harrison was actually from an established Virginia family, a learned student of classics, and a man who enjoyed luxurious living to the point that he was continually in debt. The Whigs' strategy worked. It became the first true use of political 'handling,' or public image-making, in an American presidential race."

As for Tilden, he didn't get to be the 19th president of the United States. (Or perhaps he could be referred to as the 19th* president.) But he did well in the rough-and-tumble of New York State politics in the Gilded Age. As corporation counsel for New York City and chairman of the New York State Democratic committee in 1871, "he seized the opportunity... to endeavor to fasten upon the principal city officials the crime, universally suspected, but of which there was no proof, of having corruptly embezzled to an enormous extent the moneys of the city," wrote John Biglow in the preface to Letters and Literary Memorials of Samuel J. Tilden (1909). "By a long and patient tracing of the multitude of accounts in different banks, he reached a series of results which, when compared, not only disclosed but conclusively demonstrated... the whole scheme of fraud."

Tilden played a large part, then, in the fall of Boss Tweed. Later, upon his death in 1886, Tilden also left part of his considerable fortune for the establishment of a library in New York City. Ultimately, in combination with two other libraries, it became the New York Public Library, one of the world's great libraries.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

February 8, 1922:

President Harding and His Radio

According to various sources, today is the day in 1922 when President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House. Harding, the favorite punching-bag of presidential historians, the candidate who was picked because he looked the part, the president who had skeletons in his closet like other men have suits -- including an illegitimate daughter -- was at least technologically up to date.

Radio was the thing. In the previous decade or so, it had been the province of maritime telegraphers and land-based enthusiasts willing to build their own sets. In the early 1920s, it was poised to boom as a business. In 1921 and 1922, virtually every state saw the opening of its first licensed radio stations, and newer technologies were making radio easier for non-specialists and non-hobbyists to use.

President Harding had some assistance from the Navy in setting up his set. According to a short article published in the April 8, 1922 issue of the trade magazine Telephony, "President Harding has become one of the most enthusiastic radio telephone fans in Washington. Scarcely a day goes by that he does not 'listen-in' on the receiving set specially installed for him a short time ago by the wireless experts of the Navy Department.

"The President is singularly fortunate, for his set can take a wave length of 25,000 meters, while the average amateur cannot receive on a wave much longer than 375 meters. Under ordinary conditions, the President can hear not only all the stations in the continental United States, but also those in Hawaii and Panama, although those overseas do not send in voice, but in the Morse code, which the President is yet unable to read.

"The receiving set is placed in a bookcase near the President's desk in the White House. The aerial goes out from the roof to one of the tall trees on the south side of the mansion, but the engineering bureau of the Navy Department contemplates supplanting this with an indoor 'cobweb' antenna.

"A vacuum tube detector and a two-stage amplifier make up the Presidential set. The President has become something of an expert now in tuning his set, whirling the knobs of the 'tickler' and the 'vernier adjustment' with assurance that he is going to receive the particular message he wants to hear."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

February 7, 1896:

William Hayden English Dies

A moment today for presidential also-rans; actually, the vice presidential also-rans, who mostly occupy the ninth circle of obscurity. There was a moment, however, when many millions of Americans would have known the name William Hayden English of Indiana, because he ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania in 1880. Hancock-English lost to Garfield-Arthur, but it was a close race: 4.45 million votes to 4.44 million in the popular vote, 214 to 155 in the electoral college.

Born in 1822 in Scott County, Indiana, in the southeast part of the state, and a attorney by trade, English had a successful political career that included time in the Indiana House of Representatives and the US House from 1853 to 1861. While in Congress, he was also regent of the Smithsonian Institution. After retiring from Congress, he returned to Indianapolis and organized the First National Bank. He was a developer as well, building a hotel and opera house on Monument Circle in the heart of Indianapolis. Finally, before he died, he wrote a two-volume history, The Conquest of the Northwest & the Life of George R. Clark.

Curiously, the Democratic vice presidential candidate before him in 1876, who had the office stolen from him every bit as much as Samuel J. Tilden did the presidency, was Thomas A. Hendricks, also of Indiana. But Hendricks got another chance in 1884 when he was nominated again for the vice presidency, and he became the 21st vice president of the United States during Cleveland's first term.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

February 6, 1911:

Ronald Wilson Reagan's Birthday

Today would have been Ronald Reagan's 96th birthday. Born in Tampico, Illinois, he remains the only president born in that state (Lincoln moved there). He's also the only professional actor to become president, and the only union member do to so -- the Screen Actors Guild, of which he was president for a time. He did not hold public office until well into his 50s, when he became governor of California.

It was an unexpected transition. In Back to the Future (1985), when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back in time from 1985 to 1955 and then tries to convince Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) that he really was from the future, they have this exchange:

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy," who's president of the United States in 1985?

Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.

Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? [snorts in disbelief] Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis?

[He rushes outside, down a hill and toward his laboratory]
Brown: I suppose Jane Wyman is first lady!

McFly: [following Brown] Whoa! Wait! Doc!

Brown: And Jack Benny, the secretary of the treasury.

McFly: [outside the lab door] Doc, you gotta listen to me.

Brown: [opens the door to the lab] I've had enough practical jokes for one evening. Good night, Future Boy!

Actually, Reagan was already married to Nancy Davis by 1955, but we'll give the good doctor (and his scriptwriters) a pass on that. It's hard to keep up with who's married to whom in Hollywood.

Monday, February 05, 2007

February 5, 1937:

FDR's Plan for the Judicial Branch

The Japanese proverb Saru-mo kikara ichiru is usually translated "Even monkeys fall from trees," meaning that even those at the top of their game, as monkeys would be at tree-climbing, can blunder. As astute a politician as he was, Franklin Roosevelt fell off his tree 70 years ago today when he proposed a scheme he termed "judiciary reorganization" -- which opponents immediately called "packing the court," a term that has stuck to it ever since.

FDR had reasons for overconfidence. The landslide victory over Alf Landon in November 1936 wasn't only a win for him, but also for the Democratic Party, which upped its already substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. So the president unveiled his plan for adding, at the president's discretion, a new judge for every federal judge over 70, ostensibly to help the old-timers with their workloads. The proposal would have applied to all levels of the federal judiciary, not just the Supreme Court, but of course most of the attention was focused on the high court.

Opposition to the plan was swift and deep among not only the public but Congress, a vast Democratic majority notwithstanding. Roosevelt's motives were unspoken but transparent: the court had struck down major parts of the New Deal, and he was striking back. The president's ninth fireside chat, which he gave in March to promote the proposal, did nothing to change that perception.

The bill died after a few months, but FDR was able to leave his mark on the Supreme Court in the conventional way. In fact, from 1937 to 1943 he was able to appoint the eight new justices and elevate ideological ally Harlan Fiske Stone to be chief justice.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

February 4, 1801:

John Marshall Becomes Chief Justice

With certain exceptions, such as the popular David McCullough, historians tend to be sour on John Adams, second president of the United States, but he did leave the new nation an incalculable legacy: John Marshall as chief justice (pictured). In the waning days of his term in office -- but before it was clear whether Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr would succeed him -- President Adams nominated Virginia lawyer, representative and then Secretary of State John Marshall, a Federalist, as chief justice of the United States. He was nominated by Adams late in January, confirmed and sworn in on February 4, 1801.

"There is no evidence that Adams had planned to name Marshall, or that he had calculated the move beforehand," wrote Jean Edward Smith in John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (1996) "Instead, the available information suggests that pace of events forced the choice. Adams simply could not afford to delay naming a new chief justice if the Federalists were retain control of the Court. Marshall was at hand, he was prepared to accept the post, and his personal loyalty to the president had been demonstrated time and again over the past year. By choosing Marshall, the petulant Adams was also demonstrating the power he still held as president. ..."

Which would make the appointment another example of a short-term expedient growing into something monumental. At the time, Adams probably couldn't imagine that Marshall would find his life's work on the court, serving over 34 years, and participating in more than 1,000 decisions and writing more than 500 opinions, including the landmark Marbury v. Madison. But Adams lived until 1826, so he might have had a notion of how his hasty appointment helped make the Supreme Court such an important institution.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

February 3, 1924:

Woodrow Wilson Dies, Leaves Adjective Behind

With the advanced medical treatment available to later presidents, along with modern physical therapy, Woodrow Wilson's retirement might have been longer and healthier than the roughly three years he got. With the 25th amendment to the US Constitution in place, Vice President Thomas Marshall would certainly have become Acting President after Wilson's strokes in 1919, and may have even persuaded the Senate to let the United States join the League of Nations.

But that was then, and while he was still in office, his wife and doctor hid the extend of President Wilson's illness from the vice president, his cabinet, Congress, the press and the rest of the American people, as astonishing as that might seem to us. He finally died this day 83 years ago. His legacies are many, however, and historians still argue about them.

One mark of his importance as a president and statesman is the fact that left behind an adjective based on his name -- one attached to a political philosophy that still has its defenders and detractors. Wilsonian ideals or idealism is usual the formulation. Two other common -ian adjectives made from presidential names are Jeffersonian and Jacksonian, both of which usually modify "democracy" and also refer to specific periods in US history. There's also the Madisonian model, referring to a kind of president like Madison in his exercise of power, but that's not in particularly widespread use.

Of course, any name can become an adjective, and it's common enough to see other presidents' names used that way -- but typically they refer to traits associated with the man himself, not with a larger political philosophy. Moreover, their usage fades as the memory of the president fades. Current commentators talk of Nixonian and Clintonian duplicity (to use a Republican and Democratic example), but not too often of Piercian and Buchanian indecisiveness in the face of the long-ago sectional crisis. Presumably those two didn't merit adjectives in the long run, and Nixon and Clinton might not either.

But what about other presidents that probably do merit adjectives but don't really have them? Say, Washington, Lincoln, either of the Roosevelts? Washingtonian usually means someone who lives in DC, and while Lincolnian is used, it refers more often to the characteristics of the man or his presidential decisions, not -- as it could well -- his interpretation of the Constitution as permanently binding on the states. The reason those two don't have the kind of adjective that Wilson does could be because Washington and Lincoln prevailed so completely in their efforts to establish and save the Union, respectively, that their political philosophies became the default position, and so hardly need a special name.

As for the Roosevelts, their adjective -- Rooseveltian -- just doesn't trip off the tongue. Also, there are two of them, representing rather different ideas. What would Rooseveltian mean? Speak softly, but carry a big Keynesian stick?

Friday, February 02, 2007

February 2, 1848:

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Polk administration was one of achievement -- the president had success in every major initiative he undertook in four years -- but the signal achievement of his presidency literally changed the map of the United States. The war with Mexico might have been, as US Grant observed in his Memoirs, "an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory," and most modern historians would probably agree with that assessment. But no one is suggesting the return of the territory thus won, about 529,000 square miles, to Mexico. Polk's legacy stands.

On February 2, 1848, US and Mexican negotiators inked the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo just north of Mexico City. The US representative was Nicholas Trist, "a colorful and eccentric figure... who had studied law with Jefferson and been private secretary to Jackson," wrote Page Smith in The Nation Comes of Age (1981). "Trist knew Spanish and... was handsome and urbane but conceited and self-important."

Trist had been send by President Polk to conclude a treaty, but before long the president had second thoughts, and recalled him. It wasn't merely a matter of picking up a telephone, however, as a modern president can do. Trist ignored his recall and pressed on.

"Although Trist had been ordered home by Polk," Page continued, "who had denounced him as 'impudent, arrogant, very insulting, and personally offensive,' he remained with [General Winfield] Scott and pushed negotiations for peace... When Polk received a copy of the treaty, he was at first disposed to reject it, but a majority in Congress pressed him to send it to the Senate for ratification and it passed that body by a vote of 38 to 14."

Grant had this to say about the treaty many years later: "It is to the credit of the American nation, however, that after conquering Mexico, and while practically holding the country in our possession, so that we could have retained the whole of it, or made any terms we chose, we paid a round sum for the additional territory taken; more than it was worth, or was likely to be, to Mexico. To us it was an empire, and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

February 1, 1963:

Fleetwood Lindley Dies

When President Zachary Taylor was exhumed in the early 1990s, there was some precedent for digging up dead presidents -- and not just any president, but Abraham Lincoln. Before the Great Emancipator was finally laid to rest in 1901 under two tons of cement under the tomb edifice that stands to this day in Springfield, Ill., he had been exhumed a number of times, either during reconstruction of the previous tomb or for security reasons. Grave-robbers had been thwarted once, and unfortunately were a real possibility again.

Since Lincoln was to be interred under so much cement, those in charge of the job decided to open his casket one last time, to verify that the body did indeed belong to the president. Everyone who saw him at that time agreed that it was him. Among those present that day in 1901 for the final viewing was a boy of 13, Fleetwood Lindley, whose father was involved in the re-entombment.

Lindley, the last surviving person to see Lincoln's body, and perhaps the last to see Lincoln, period, died this day in 1963. More on this presidential oddity can be found here and here.