Monday, April 30, 2007

April 30, 1789:

Washington Takes the Oath

The First Congress under the new US Constitution met in the nation's temporary capital, New York City, in March 1789. One of the first orders of business was to officially count the votes for president, and then determine how and where George Washington was to be inaugurated.

Traveling from Mt. Vernon in mid-April, Washington arrived in New York on April 23. The details of the ceremony were yet to be hammered out, so it wasn't until April 30 that he stood on a balcony at Federal Hall on Wall Street and took the oath administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingstone, New York's highest-ranking judge. (There was no chief justice of the United States yet, or any Supreme Court.)

After taking the oath, Washington gave a short speech. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania (pictured below) was there. His diary is a singularly important document from the time of the First Congress, recording as it does details of the debates on the Senate floor. Of Washington's oath-taking, he wrote:

"The President advanced between the Senate and Representatives, bowing to each. He was placed in the chair by the Vice-President; the Senate with their president on the right, the Speaker and the Representatives on his left. The Vice-President rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal bow, and the President was conducted out of the middle window into the gallery, and the oath was administered by the Chancellor. Notice that the business done was communicated to the crowd by proclamation, etc., who gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President bowing to them.

"As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took the, chair and the Senators and Representatives, their seats. He rose, and all arose also, and addressed them. This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

"He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the faIl of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.

"When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

"He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a. bag, and sword."

April 29, 1974:

"Expletive Deleted"

Richard Nixon was not the first president to tape conversations in his office, but his taping -- done for reasons never clearly explained, though presumably with an eye toward history -- are the most notorious. But for the aural evidence they preserved, Watergate would have been more speculation than serious scandal.

In the spring of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 tapes of conversation, in addition to some that had already been turned over to the committee. President Nixon had until the end of April to comply. On April 29, he responded with an exceedingly dodgy move -- Nixonian, one might say -- in offering the committee transcripts of the tapes, which he discussed on prime-time TV with stacks of transcripts nearby.

"In these folders that you see over here on my left are more than 1,200 pages of transcripts of private conversations I participated in between September 15, 1972, and April 27 of 1973 with my principal aides and associates with regard to Watergate," Nixon told the nation. "They include all the relevant portions of all of the subpoenaed conversations that were recorded, that is, all portions that relate to the question of what I knew about Watergate or the coverup and what I did about it...

"Ever since the existence of the White House taping system was first made known last summer, I have tried vigorously to guard the privacy of the tapes. I have been well aware that my effort to protect the confidentiality of Presidential conversations has heightened the sense of mystery about Watergate and, in fact, has caused increased suspicions of the President. Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the President, or that otherwise, he would not insist on their privacy." (The entire speech is here.)

Sure enough, many people happened to be right in that assumption. In any case, the Judiciary Committee demanded the actual tapes. In the summer, Nixon lost in his in the struggle to keep the tapes under wraps, and the presidency with it.

The transcriptions, through frequent repetition, popularized at least one expression: "expletive deleted."

Sunday, April 29, 2007

April 28, 1758:

James Monroe's Birthday

James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States, is often considered the tail-end president of the generation that took the 13 colonies to independence. Generally he's remembered for the Monroe Doctrine that carries his name and the short pause in partisanship during his presidency -- the "Era of Good Feelings," a term coined by a newspaper editor -- but he also presided over the demilitarization of the US-Canada border that still stands today, the purchase of Florida from Spain, and the Compromise of 1820.

The following is from James Monroe in His Relations to the Public Service During Half a Century, 1776 to 1826, a work by Daniel Coit Gilman in the pattern of they-don't write-them-like-that-anymore biographies, fitting since it was published in 1883: "James Monroe, according to the family tradition recorded by his son-in-law, came from a family of Scotch cavaliers, descendants of Hector Monroe, an officer of Charles I. His parentage on both sides was Virginian... Near the head of Monroe's Creek, which empties into the Potomac, James Monroe was born April 28, 1758.

"Not far away, nearer the Potomac, was the birthplace of George Washington. In the same vicinity dwelt Richard Henry Lee and his noted brothers, and also their famous cousin, Henry Lee, known as "Light Horse Harry," whose still more famous son, Robert E. Lee, led the Confederate army in the recent war. Here also was the early home of Bushrod Washington. The birthplace of James Madison was in the same peninsula, though not in the same county. It is not strange that the enthusiastic antiquaries, half a century ago, -- Martin, Barber, and the rest, -- should speak of this region as the Athens of Virginia, an expression which may not be regarded as exact by classical scholars, but cannot be called unpatriotic!"

James Monroe also had the patriotic sense to die on July 4, just as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had, making that day the only one on which three presidents have died. But Monroe died five years after they did, in 1831.

Friday, April 27, 2007

April 27, 1822:

US Grant's Birthday

Soldier, successful military strategist, commander of the Union forces that subdued the Confederacy, and lackluster president, US Grant was also, to his credit, a world traveler. After his presidency was over, he and his wife went on a world tour that lasted more than two years. Starting with the British Isles, they visited many parts of Europe as far east as Russia, then Egypt and the Holy Land, and then various parts of Asia, including Burma, Siam, China and Japan. It was a highly unusual itinerary for the time, even among those who could afford such an extended trip.

Naturally, the Grants were no ordinary tourists, nor even the American equivalent of grand tour travelers. They met royalty and other heads of state, attended functions in their honor, and attracted crowds of people at parades and other events. Newspapers back home covered their movements in detail, and the public read with fascination.

Grant's love of travel ran deep and, according to his Personal Memoirs was in fact one of the reasons he went to West Point. "Besides the argument used by my father in favor of my going to West Point -- that 'he thought I would go'--there was another very strong inducement. I had always a great desire to travel. I was already the best-traveled boy in Georgetown [Ohio]..."

A short description of the Grant's world tour is here, at the American Experience web site.

April 26, 1865:

John Wilkes Booth Dies

Lincoln's assassin escaped the night he murdered the president, but his days were numbered. Booth, along with another conspirator, David Herold, made it as far as a tobacco barn near the Rappahannock River in Virginia in late April. But they could elude the intense manhunt no longer.

Eyewitness to has this to say about the event: "After riding and searching continuously for over 24 hours, the men of the 16th New York Cavalry arrive at the Garrett farm at 2 o'clock on the morning of April 26 and quickly discover Herold and Booth hiding in the barn. Ordered to give up, Herold flees the barn proclaiming his innocence. Booth defiantly remains inside, ignoring the threat to burn the barn if he does not surrender. As the officer in charge of the cavalry tries to negotiate with Booth, someone at the back of the barn lights some straw and fire spreads throughout the structure. Booth at first moves towards the fire, then turns and hops towards the door. A shot rings out fired by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Booth falls, paralyzed. Carried to the porch of the farmhouse, Lincoln's assassin lingers between life and death finally succumbing around seven in the morning.

"Booth's body is carried up the Potomac and buried beneath the floor of the penitentiary in Washington, DC... David Herold stands trial with three other conspirators. All four are found guilty and all including Mrs. Surratt, owner of the tavern where Booth stopped, are hanged on July 7, 1865." The entire article is here.

Thomas "Boston" Corbett had disobeyed orders by plugging Booth, since Secretary of War Stanton wanted him alive, but Corbett nevertheless got a share of the reward money promised for the taking of Booth, more than $1,650 (roughly $22,000 in current purchasing power). Corbett's ultimate fate is lost to history, though he did spend time in the 1880s in a Kansas insane asylum.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

April 25, 1898:

War With Spain

Congress declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. As it happened, President McKinley managed things quite successfully, but it seems that he really didn't think the country was up to it beforehand.

According to H.H. Kohlsaat, editor of the Chicago-Times Herald and confidant of the president, McKinley has his reservations about the matter. Later, he wrote about the events of April 1898 in From McKinley to Harding (1923).

"At Harper's Ferry a telegram invited me to dine with the President and Mrs. McKinley. My train was two hours behind time, making it too late for dinner. So I wired that I would come as soon as possible.

"There was a piano recital in the Blue Room of the White House. Mrs. McKinley was seated near the pianist, looking very frail and ill. The President was in the centre of the room on an S-shaped settee. There were eighteen or twenty guests present. As I stood in the doorway some one said: 'The President is trying to catch your eye.' He motioned me to sit by him, and whispered: 'As soon as she is through this piece go and speak to Mrs. McKinley and then go to the Red Room door. I will join you.' I did as requested, and when he had shaken hands with some of the late arrivals we went into the Red Room. We sat on a large crimson-brocade lounge. McKinley rested his head on his hands, with elbows on knees. He was in much distress, and said: 'I have been through a trying period. Mrs. McKinley has been in poorer health than usual. It seems to me I have not slept over three hours a night for over two weeks. Congress is trying to drive us into war with Spain. The Spanish fleet is in Cuban waters, and we haven't enough ammunition on the Atlantic seacoast to fire a salute.'

"He broke down and cried like a boy of thirteen. I put my hand on his shoulder and remained silent, as I thought the tension would be relieved by his tears. As he became calm, I tried to assure him that the country would back him in any course he should pursue. He finally said
'Are my eyes very red? Do they look as if I had been crying?'

" 'Yes.'

" 'But I must return to Mrs. McKinley at once. She is among strangers.'

" 'When you open the door to enter the room, blow your nose very hard and loud. It will force tears into your eyes and they will think that is what makes your eyes red.' He acted on this suggestion and it was no small blast.

"After the musicale the President and I went into the old cabinet room and talked until very late.

"A few days afterward Congress voted to put $50,000,000 in McKinley's hands-with no string on it. War was declared April 25, 1898.

"[On] May 1, 1898, the battle of Manila was fought. I visited the President a few days after the victory. McKinley said: 'When we received the cable from Admiral Dewey telling of the taking of the Philippines I looked up their location on the globe. I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles!' Some months later he said: 'If old Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.' "

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

April 24, 1800:

John Adams Signs Off on the Library of Congress

One little-mentioned legacy of the first Adams administration is the Library of Congress, one of the great libraries of the Earth. It had a fairly modest start.

(The Library of Congress building, under construction in 1893.)

According to the web site of the Library itself ("Today in History"), "On April 24, 1800, President John Adams approved the appropriation of $5,000 for the purchase of 'such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.'

"The books, the first purchased for the Library of Congress, were ordered from London and arrived in 1801. The collection of 740 volumes and three maps was stored in the U.S. Capitol, the Library's first home. President Thomas Jefferson approved the first legislation defining the role and functions of the new institution on January 26, 1802.

"In the almost two centuries since its founding, the Library has taken on the mission of making its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people, and sustaining and preserving a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The vast holdings of the Library now number well over 110 million items."

The fact that the library was in the Capitol was a problem when the British burned the building in 1814. Later, the Library gained another presidential connection when former President Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his library to the nation to re-create the Library of Congress. A patriotic gesture, certainly, but Jefferson also needed the dough to fend off creditors.

More from the Library of Congress itself: "Jefferson's library not only included over twice the number of volumes as had been destroyed, it expanded the scope of the library beyond its previous topics—law, economics, and history—to include a wide variety of subjects in several languages.

"Anticipating the objection that his collection might be too comprehensive, he argued, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."

April 23, 1791:

James Buchanan's Birthday

In the presidency, as in all walks of life, there's success and there's failure. And then there's pitiful, abject failure. The birthday of the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, is a good time to meditate on chief executive failure of the abject sort.

In the various polls of historians ranking the presidents, Buchanan is usually down toward the bottom -- among the worst, typically in the company of Pierce and Harding and sometimes Andrew Johnson and Grant. The Republic has survived them all, just barely in the case of Buchanan, but what makes him a bad president?

According to Tulane University's "Crisis at Fort Sumter" series, "Buchanan never expressed regrets for any of his public acts, and he predicted that history would vindicate his memory. But while he has been credited with good intentions in his efforts to avert civil war and achieve a compromise, his general handling of the sectional crisis has been criticized.

"The reasons vary. Some scholars find fault in Buchanan's character. They portray Buchanan as timid, weak, and indecisive. Insecure and excessively reliant on the opinions of others, he was also prone at times to adhere stubbornly to a decision, however flawed. Others emphasize Buchanan's reliance on legalistic thinking and the power of reason, which hampered his ability to deal with the intense passions and emotions that infused sectional politics. Still others claim that Buchanan was unable to comprehend the nature of the sectional dispute over slavery. He never gave to the North's concerns about slavery and southern power the same sympathy and understanding that he gave to the South's complaints."

The entire essay is here.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

April 22, 1994:

Richard Nixon Dies

Only one man in the history of the United States has been elected to the offices of vice president and president twice each, and that's the 37th President of United States, Richard Milhous Nixon (few -- seven -- vice presidents have served two terms, so his competition for the distinction is small). He is not, however, the only person to come back from defeat in a presidential election to later win the prize: Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland also did that, though Nixon is the only person in the 20th century to do so. (His and Pat Nixon's gravesite in Yorba Linda, California, is pictured below.)

About 25 years ago, the column Straight Dope fielded this question: "Among other things, Richard Nixon qualifies as an ex-president. Has anybody given any thought to what will happen when he dies? Will flags be automatically be lower to half-staff, or will we have a big brouhaha about the appropriate procedure for mourning disgraced public leaders?"

The answer, in part: "This particular hot potato will be dropped into the lap of the man lucky enough to be president when Nixon kicks. It's not tradition, but a presidential proclamation that establishes the customary 30 days' public mourning. Conceivably, whoever's in charge could declare a national 30-day period of embarrassed throat-clearing, or choose to ignore the whole thing."

In the event, 20 years after the Watergate scandal, nothing of the kind happened. Nixon received his full posthumous due as a former president, including flags at half-staff, the offer of lying in state at the Capitol (his family declined), and a 21-gun salute and a generous eulogy from President Clinton at the funeral -- "He had an incredibly sharp and vigorous and rigorous mind," the president said about his predecessor, among other things.

Of course, not everyone was so laudatory -- "a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream with a heart full of hate and an overweening lust to be President," was the gonzo thumbnail of Nixon's character, though not one offered to the public during the official funeral ceremonies.

April 21, 1789:

John Adams Takes the Vice Presidential Oath

Interestingly, John Adams took the oath of office as the first Vice President of the United States under the new Constitution nine days ahead of the inauguration of George Washington as president. Since the only real job the vice president seemed to have was to preside over the US Senate, he and the newly formed chamber presumably wanted to get it up and running ahead of the big event on April 30.

Adams' subsequent and somewhat sour presidency is much more remembered than his vice presidency, an office he famously disparaged as worthless. And yet, as vice president, he was quite active in the Senate during an important time in the nation's formation.

The Senate's web site has this to say about its very first presiding officer: "On April 21, 1789, John Adams, the first vice president of the United States, began his duties as president of the Senate.  Adams' role in the administration of George Washington was sharply constrained by the constitutional limits on the vice-presidency and his own reluctance to encroach upon executive prerogative.  He enjoyed a cordial but distant relationship with President Washington, who sought his advice on occasion but relied primarily on the cabinet. Adams played a more active role in the Senate, however, particularly during his first term.

"As president of the Senate, Adams cast twenty-nine tie-breaking votes—a record that no successor has ever threatened. His votes protected the president's sole authority over the removal of appointees, influenced the location of the national capital, and prevented war with Great Britain. On at least one occasion he persuaded senators to vote against legislation that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural and policy matters. Adams' political views and his active role in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington administration. Toward the end of his first term, he began to exercise more restraint in the hope of realizing the goal shared by many of his successors: election in his own right as president of the United States."

The full article is here.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

April 20, 1812:

Vice President Clinton Dies

George Clinton, member of the Continental Congress, brigadier general in the Revolution and first revolutionary governor of New York (and longest-serving in that office to this day), also has a number of near-presidential distinctions. He was the fourth Vice President of the United States, taking the job from the discredited Aaron Burr in 1805 and serving during Thomas Jefferson's second term.

He was re-elected vice president in 1808 when James Madison won the presidency, and thus became only one of two vice presidents to serve under different presidents (John C. Calhoun was later John Q. Adams' vice president, and then Andrew Jackson's first one.)

Clinton -- no known relation to the late 20th-century president, incidentally -- also became the first vice president to die in office. On April 20, 1812, he apparently died of a heart attack at age 73. The Constitution in those days made no provision for the replacement of a vice president, so the office remained vacant until the next election, as it would so often under the passage of the 25th amendment.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

April 19, 1951:

Truman v. MacArthur

President Truman relived Douglas MacArthur of his twin command positions as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Japan and Commander of the United Nations forces in Korea on April 11, 1951. During his time in office, probably nothing else Truman did evoked a stronger storm of criticism; MacArthur was popular indeed. On April 19, after a quick trip across the country greeted by many well-wishers, the general gave his famed farewell speech to a joint session of Congress.

It was not a long speech, but it summed up MacArthur's reasoning on why he had advocated taking the war into China. It ended with a most-quoted line about old soldiers fading away. The entire speech is here.

But his dismissal stuck, and Truman is generally given his due these days. As commander-in-chief, a president can't very well have his top general loudly advocating an alternative military strategy in the middle of a war, however wrong the general considers the president to be.

But there may have been more to it than mere insubordination. If author and Korea specialist Bruce Cumings is right, Truman also wanted a more reliable commander in the field in case he -- Turman -- decided to use atomic bombs.

"The US came closest to using atomic weapons in April 1951, when Truman removed MacArthur," wrote Cumings in Le Monde Diplomatique (December 2004). "Although much related to this episode is still classified, it is now clear that Truman did not remove MacArthur simply because of his repeated insubordination, but because he wanted a reliable commander on the scene should Washington decide to use nuclear weapons; Truman traded MacArthur for his atomic policies."

Fortunately, the United States refrained from those "atomic policies," whatever they might have been. The entire article is here.

Interestingly, MacArthur's father, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, had a run-in with civilian authority as well -- namely future president William Howard Taft, the first US civilian governor of the Philippines -- and was ultimately transfered from his command in that new US territory.

April 18, 1853:

Vice President William R. King Dies

When William Rufus DeVane King died in the spring of 1853 after only about six weeks as vice president, he left behind his name at a distant place he'd never been to, King County, then in the Oregon Territory, but now the county in which Seattle is located.

According to Gregory Roberts, writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year, soon after the election of 1852, which Franklin Pierce and William R. King won handily, "the Oregon Territorial Legislature created four counties in the Puget Sound region: King, Pierce, Jefferson and Island.

"Naming two of the counties after the president- and vice president-elect likely was designed to curry favor with the far-away national administration, UW history professor John Findlay said last week.

"Two days before leaving office, on March 2, 1853, President Fillmore signed the act splitting off the Territory of Washington, including the four counties, from the Oregon Territory. By that time, King was in Cuba, hoping the tropical climate would aid his struggle against the pneumonia that would soon kill him..."

Officially speaking, however, King County, Washington, is no longer named for the 13th Vice President of the United States. In 1986, someone at the King County Council noticed that William R. King had done disagreeable things by modern standards, especially owning slaves. So the council passed a resolution redesignating the county in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. In 2005, the Washington legislature passed a bill, and the governor signed it, to affirm the new choice of honoree for the county.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April 17, 1976:

Gerald Ford Appears on Late-Night TV

The April 17, 1976, episode of Saturday Night Live had a lot to offer its audience, including Dan Aykroyd pitching the Bass-O-Matic '76, the Patti Smith Group performing, a sketch in which Catherine the Great's press secretary announces that the empress has died in a riding accident, Emily Litella and more. The show also included President Gerald R. Ford making three cameo appearances on film, including one in which he says the signature opener, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

Ford's press secretary, Ron Nessen, was host that night, a fact that's remarkable in its own right. How that came to pass was spoofed during the show, with Chevy Chase playing Ford and Nessen playing himself:

Nessen: ...that's why I want to host this show, to demonstrate that this administration has a sense of humor. You may remember in 1968, Nixon said, "Sock it to me" on Laugh-In, and it may have made the difference in the election.

Ford: He won, didn't he, Ron?

Nessen: Yes, he did, sir.

Ford: [chuckles to himself] By golly, he was funny then, and he's funny now. He's a funny man, Ron.

Nessen: Yes, sir.

Ford: That's why I gave him a break, Ron. [to stuffed dog on floor] Stop that infernal noise, Liberty! [to Ron] Well, by all means do the show.

Nessen: Thank you, sir. Now, the producer suggested you might like to do something on the show yourself.

Ford: Well, I can take a joke just so far... [stands up and walks behind desk] ...but I won't have this high office ridiculed. I won't have me stumbling around... [walks into window] ...making a fool of myself... [walks into flag and fumbles with it, trying to keep it from falling] ...for some late night comedy show... [picks up football helmet and puts it on] ...I don't need to prove that I can fall down like Chevy Chase or be an athlete. Everyone knows I'm an athlete... [accidentally kicks wastepaper basket and chases it, soon giving up and returning to his desk] ...I'll never forget those wonderful days... [picks up tennis racket, throws it in the air to try and catch it, but misses. Walks over to "Liberty," cups his hand near the dog's tail] ...Gimme the ball, Liberty!... [takes off helmet, tries to drop-kick it but misses. Returns to desk and sits down]

Monday, April 16, 2007

April 16, 1832:

Gov. John Reynolds Calls Up the Illinois Militia

The Black Hawk War is important in US presidential history because, unknown to its participants, two future presidents -- Taylor and Lincoln -- participated in it, and so did the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, though he missed most of the conflict. Actually, though he joined up three separate times, young Mr. Lincoln missed fighting Indians as well, reporting later that he mostly fought mosquitoes. Nevertheless, Lincoln had answered the call of Gov. Reynolds of Illinois for militia in the spring of 1832 to repel Sac and Fox Indians who had decided to return unannounced to ancestral lands in Illinois. (Gov. Reynolds also served as a field commander in the conflict, unusual for a state governor.)

"[Lincoln's] first enlistment was as elected captain of a company in the 4th Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, of Gen. Samuel Whiteside's Brigade," wrote Robert A. Braun of the Old Lead Region Historical Society. "Lincoln enrolled on April 21, 1832, and mustered out with his company at Fort Johnson (Ottawa) on May 27, 1832. The company served at Beardstown, and reportedly Lincoln's company helped bury the dead of "Stillman's Run"— although this occurrence is still under investigation...

"Lincoln re-enlisted on the same day he mustered out of his old company, and was mustered in on May 29 as a private in Captain Elijah Ises' Company, Twenty-Day Interim Regiment. He actively served with the company when General Henry Atkinson detached Captain Iles' command to ride north from Ottawa along the Kellogg Trail and reopen communications with Galena -- which had been out of touch with the rest of the world since the Felix St. Vrain Massacre... Once this ride was completed, the service of Iles’ company was essentially at an end. On June 16, Lincoln was mustered out.

"Lincoln's third enlistment was as a private in Captain Jacob M. Early's 'Spy Company.' This unit mustered in approximately June 20, 1832, and served as part of General Atkinson’s army as it moved north through present-day Beloit, Janesvilles, the Storr's Lake encampment (west of present-day Milton, Rock County, Wisconsin) and on to the “Trembling Lands” east of present-day Fort Atkinson, Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Atkinson's food supply dwindled, and his solution was to muster out most of his militia. Accordingly, Early's company (along with Lincoln) was mustered out and discharged on July 10, 1832..."

April 15, 1865:

Andrew Johnson Takes the Oath of Office

Four US presidents have been murdered in office, half the number of those who have died in office -- unless you believe Warren Harding was offed by his wife, who may have had some motive, but otherwise there's no evidence for it. Put another way, four out of the 42 individuals who have ever been president were killed for it, nearly 1 in 10. By that way of reckoning, it's a dangerous job. On the other hand, assassination of the president is something that's happened only four times in 218 years -- less than once every 50 years.

One hundred forty-two years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln died across the street from the Ford Theater at 7:22 am. Vice President Andrew Johnson took the oath of office at the Kirkwood House, the hotel where he was living, a few hours later, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase administering it. By all contemporary accounts, it was a somber occasion, with Johnson behaving in a dignified manner.

Later, however, some of Johnson's enemies began remembering the event differently. "Senator [William] Stewart of Nevada... told a fantastic story," wrote Hans L. Trefousee in Andrew Johnson (1989). "Maintaining that he himself along with the chief justice and Senator [Solomon] Foot were the first persons to bring Johnson news of the tragedy, he alleged that the visitors found the vice president half dressed, dirty, shabby, with matted hair as though from mud in the gutter, apparently trying to overcome a hangover. According to Stewart, the chief justice informed Johnson that the president had been shot and between seven or eight in the morning administered the oath of office. After the callers informed Secretary of War Stanton, they returned, only to find Johnson asleep again. Dressing him, they took him to the White House, where they sent for a tailor, doctor and barber, bathed him, and put new clothes on him...

"The falsity of these assertions is evident. Stewart's account is contradicted by most other contemporary sources, including a memorandum in the chief justice's papers prepared the next day... In order to give the distraught Mrs. Lincoln a chance to move out, [Johnson] did not even occupy the White House for several weeks after his inauguration."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

April 14, 1865:

Booth Shoots Lincoln, Powell Stabs Seward

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln has been called part of a conspiracy to decapitate the federal government, and with some reason. Unlike other presidential assassins or would-be assassins who worked alone, actor John Wilkes Booth, who orchestrated the conspiracy, had accomplices who were supposed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward that same night.

A man named George Atzerodt was supposed to kill Johnson, while another named Lewis Powell (a.k.a Payne) was tasked to kill Seward. Atzerodt lost his nerve, but Powell stabbed Seward though did not kill him. Under the succession law of the time, Seward wasn't in line, but no doubt he was chosen to die because of his importance to the Lincoln administration and the consternation it would have caused. President Pro Tem of the Senate Lafayette Foster of Connecticut would have become acting president had Lincoln and Johnson both died. Sen. Foster remained second in line to the presidency until he lost his seat in 1867.

Lincoln's death in all its unfortunate detail -- Ford's Theater, Our American Counsin, "Sic semper tyrannis!" and all the rest -- is well known even to a nation generally uninterested in its history. Far less known is the story of the other victim of the plot that night, William Seward. (Below is the attempted murder, as depicted in Harper's Weekly.)

Douglas O. Linder writes at the "Great Trials" web site of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, "The conspiracy began to unfold around eight o'clock on April 14, when Powell met with Booth, who gave him weapons and a horse. At ten o'clock Powell and David Herold arrived at Seward's home in Washington.  Powell told the servant who answered the door, William Bell, that he had a prescription for Secretary Seward from his doctor.  Over Bell's objections, Powell began walking up the steps toward the Secretary's room, when he was confronted by the Secretary's son, Frederick Seward.

"Seward told Powell he would take the medicine, but Powell insisted on seeing the Secretary.  When Seward resisted entry, Powell clubbed him violently with his revolver (fracturing Seward's head so severely that he would remain in a coma for sixty days), then slashed the Secretary's bodyguard, George Robinson, in the forehead with a bowie knife.  Finally reaching the Secretary in his bed, Powell -- shouting, 'I'm mad, I'm mad!' -- stabbed him several times before he could be pulled off by Robinson and two other men. 

"Powell raced down the stairs and out the door to his one-eyed bay mare.  Attempting to flee in the direction of the Navy Yard bridge, Powell instead made a wrong turn and ended up spending the night in a cemetery near the Capitol.

"Powell was arrested on April 17 after he showed up at Mary Surratt's home with a pick-axe while she was being questioned by a party of military investigators.  Powell -- at the unlikely hour of eleven p.m. -- claimed to have been hired to dig a gutter. Mary Surratt refused to back up his story and he was arrested on suspicion of his involvement in the assassination plot. When William Bell identified Powell as Seward's attacker, Powell laughed. Further confirmation of Powell's guilt came in the form of blood spots found on the inside sleeves of his jacket and shirt.  Authorities also made out the barely legible lettering inside his boots: 'J W B - th.' "

Saturday, April 14, 2007

April 13, 1743:

Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

What more to say about the Third President of the United States? Maybe he isn't the sine qua non of the United States like George Washington, but Thomas Jefferson is very nearly of the same stature.

He has his detractors, of course, and always has, but interest in him has never flagged, one way or the other. Even something as obscure (or it would be obscure, if he were not Jefferson) as his tastes in wine support a cottage industry of scholars and documentarians and even an active vineyard.

So on this occasion of Jefferson's 264th birthday, Alexis de Tocqueville has the last word on Jefferson: "The greatest democrat... America has as yet produced."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 12, 1945:

Franklin Roosevelt Dies

FDR, president for 12-plus years, was worn down by the stress of office, but perhaps more critically, he suffered from high blood pressure, which at the time medical science could do very little about. An article by in US News & World Report in 2005 by Daniel Levy and Susan Brink makes clear that the 32nd president lived a few decades too early to survive into old age (after all, he was only 63 when he died): "... severe blood pressure elevation such as he was experiencing can cause chest pain, as well as congestive heart failure, kidney failure, deteriorating mental function, and stroke," wrote Levy and Brink. "It represents a medical emergency. In that condition, the president undertook an arduous 14,000-mile round trip and spent a week orchestrating the final strategy for victory in Europe. He returned exhausted from his pivotal meeting with Joseph Stalin and Churchill in Yalta. As the war raged on, the commander in chief involved himself in discussions about a new weapon nearing readiness--the atomic bomb.

"He headed to his Georgia sanctuary at the end of March [1945] for two weeks of rest. Those who saw him during his last days were shocked at how aged he looked. He was down 15 pounds from his normal range of 184 to 188. Suffering from orthopnea, a telltale sign of congestive heart failure, he had trouble breathing when lying down, and for months had been sleeping with 4-inch blocks of wood propping the head of the bed. The agent at the Warm Springs railroad station, C. A. Pless, accustomed to greeting a smiling, waving man who could never resist the crowd, said later, 'The president was the worst-looking man I ever saw who was still alive.'

"On the morning of April 12, Roosevelt donned a dark-gray suit, matching vest, and red tie to pose for a watercolor portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. As the artist painted, he signed papers. Roosevelt lit a cigarette, raised his left hand to his temple, and then seemed to squeeze his forehead. As he reached for the back of his neck, he said, 'I have a terrific headache.' Then he lost consciousness. An excruciating headache is a classic symptom of a brain hemorrhage, a catastrophic form of stroke caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. [FDR's doctor] Bruenn was summoned and within minutes took his patient's blood pressure. The numbers, an unsustainable 300/190, went well beyond an indication of danger. They were evidence that the tragedy had already occurred. Two hours later, at 3:45 p.m., the president was dead. Although no autopsy was performed, the cause of death was certainly a massive stroke.

"When Roosevelt died, doctors had little more than folk wisdom at their disposal to control blood pressure. To look at the picture of cardiovascular ignorance just six decades ago is startling. Heart disease, the most common form of cardiovascular disease, was so ubiquitous that it was considered an inevitable consequence of aging."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April 11, 1862:

Charles Evans Hughes' Birthday

Associate justice of the US Supreme Court and later chief justice of the United States, secretary of war, governor of New York: Charles Evans Hughes was all of these and more during his long career, but for want of about 3,000 votes in California in 1916, never president of the United States. He is among that small group of men -- including but not limited to Samuel J. Tilden, James G. Blaine and Al Gore -- who all came within a whisker of the presidency. Had California's electors gone to Hughes, he would have unseated Woodrow Wilson (as it happened, Wilson won the electoral vote 277 to 254).

Speaking of whiskers, Hughes was also the last major-party presidential candidate to wear both a beard and mustache, and by losing wasn't able to delay the trend of clean-shaven presidents in the 20th century after Taft. He wasn't the most recent presidential candidate with facial hair, however. That distinction currently belongs to the mustachioed Thomas Dewey, loser in 1944 and '48.

According to the entertaining web site "Facial Hair and Presidential Elections, "It is said that Hughes 'grew his famous beard in 1890 in the interest of efficiency - to save trips to the barber.' Theodore Roosevelt, reconciled with the Republican Party, unenthusiastically campaigned for Hughes, whom he called "Wilson with whiskers." Hughes apparently went to bed on election night thinking he had won, and was woken in the morning to learn that he had lost."

This is another amusing article about presidential facial hair.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

April 10, 1882:

Frances Perkins' Birthday

Today is the birthday of Frances Coralie Perkins, nicknamed "Diddly," the fourth Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in a president's cabinet. By virtue of that fact, she was also the first woman to be in the line of succession for the presidency. As Secretary of Labor during the entire presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, she was ninth in line under the law in force at the time (these days, it should be noted, there are four women in the presidential line of succession).

Perkins was a well-known quantity to FDR, agitating for labor reform and serving the state of New York in various capacities in the years before he was elected. But she almost didn't take the position.

"... Jane Addams and others campaigned for Perkins to be Secretary of Labor and urged ER to help secure the position for her," notes a short article about Perkins published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project of George Washington University. "Perkins, convinced that a person from organized labor should hold the post, initially refused and suggested a woman trade unionist instead. The pressure on her to accept the position increased, and after telling FDR that she expected the administration to side with liberal labor practices and that she wanted to spend weekends in New York with her family, she accepted the position. Labor objected, arguing that she had no experience with unions and little ties with the labor movement, but she defused their opposition by downplaying her position and praising the role of AFL president William Green.

"As a key labor advisor to FDR, she helped shape the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. She also shepherded the United States' entry into the International Labor Organization, and remained its active supporter throughout her life. She resigned July 1, 1945 so that Truman could appoint Lew Schwellenbach..."

She died in 1965. The GWU biographical sketch is here.

Monday, April 09, 2007

April 9, 1865:

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

General Horace Porter described the scene at Wilmer McLean's home that day:

"We entered, and found General Grant sitting at a marble-topped table in the center of the room, and Lee sitting beside a small oval table near the front window, in the corner opposite to the door by which we entered, and facing General Grant. We walked in softly and ranged ourselves quietly about the sides of the room, very much as people enter a sick-chamber when they expect to find the patient dangerously ill.

"The contrast between the two commanders was striking, and could not fail to attract marked attention they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nut-brown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He wore an ordinary pair of top-boots, with his trousers inside, and was without spurs. The boots and portions of his clothes were spattered with mud. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder-straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.

"Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height, and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant's senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin in the front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels. His top-boots were comparatively new, and seemed to have on them some ornamental stitching of red silk. Like his uniform, they were singularly clean, and but little travel-stained. On the boots were handsome spurs, with large rowels. A felt hat, which in color matched pretty closely that of his uniform, and a pair of long buckskin gauntlets lay beside him on the table.

"General Grant began the conversation by saying 'I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott's headquarters to visit Garland's brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.'

" 'Yes,' replied General Lee, 'I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.' "

April 8, 1778:

John Adams Arrives in Paris

On April 8, 1778, John Adams wrote this in his diary: "Rode through Orleans and arrived in Paris about nine o'clock. For thirty miles from Paris or more the road was paved, and the scenes were extremely beautiful."

Adams had good reason to be relieved at the end of this particular journey, though he wasn't especially looking forward to the task ahead, namely pleading for French assistance in the struggle for independence. The future second president of the unborn United States had just made a dangerous mid-winter crossing of the Atlantic to carry out his diplomatic mission -- and in the company of his young son, J.Q. Adams, the future sixth president.

Dangerous because of the weather, for one thing. David McCullough in John Adams (2001) wrote: "Now he was embarking on a 3,000-mile voyage in the North Atantic in its most treacherous season, the risks far greater than he knew... [including] the chances of being hit by a northeaster and driven onto the shoals of Cape Cod, graveyard of ships [and] the sheer terror of winter storms at sea when freezing spray aloft could turn to ice so heavy as to cause a ship to capsize."

He was also risking capture by a British vessel, and the distinct possibility of being hanged for treason if so. "But with his overriding sense of duty, his need to serve, his ambition, and as a patriot fiercely committed to the fight for independence, he could not have done otherwise [but go]," posits McCullough. But he and his son made it, the first of a number of trips they would make to Europe, including a posting for the elder Adams as the first US ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

April 7, 1786:

William Rufus DeVane King’s Birthday

Today is the birthday of the 13th Vice President of the United States, William R. King, the only Alabaman to hold that position or, for that matter, the only Alabaman to be either vice president or president. Actually born in North Carolina, and a successful young politician in that state – serving in the US House from 1811 to 1816 - King moved to the Alabama Territory in that late 1810s and represented it as a state in the US Senate from 1819 to 1844 and again from 1848 to 1852.

King became vice president when Franklin Pierce became president, on March 4, 1853. King was not, however, in Washington, DC, for the occasion, having gone to Cuba a few months earlier in the vain hope that the warmer climate would help his tuberculosis. King received a special dispensation from Congress to be inaugurated vice president while in Cuba, and thus took the oath of office on March 24, 1853, which was administered by the US Consul at Havana, William L. Sharkey. Deathly ill, Vice President King wanted to die in Alabama, so in April he returned, living just long enough to make it home. He died on April 18, 1853.

King wasn’t the shortest-serving vice president, though the two who served less time – John Tyler and Andrew Johnson – became president instead of dying in office. He’s also a footnote for the speculation surrounding him and James Buchanan, who became president about four years after King died. That they were close, there is no doubt. Just how close will never really be known, however, though it’s all too easy to project latter-day sexual notions on the past that the past isn’t going to bother to confirm or deny.

Friday, April 06, 2007

April 6, 1841:

John Tyler Takes the Oath of Office

According to the Library of Congress web series Meet Amazing Americans, "President Harrison was not interested in Vice President's Tyler's help, so Tyler retreated to his Virginia estate immediately after Harrison's inauguration. But a month later, on April 5, 1841, Tyler awoke to Secretary of State Daniel Webster's son knocking on his door. What was Webster there to tell him? (Today's illustration depicts that event.)

"Young Webster had traveled all night from Washington to tell Vice President Tyler that President Harrison had died the day before from pneumonia. Tyler headed to Washington immediately, only to find the same Whig power-seekers battling over offices and positions."

On April 6, 1841, John Tyler took the oath of office as president of the United States. With hindsight -- and with absolutely no practical impact at all -- some scholars have disagreed with Tyler's move, citing early writing on presidential succession indicating that the Founders intended the vice president to serve only as acting president in the event of a presidential vacancy or disability.

Tyler clearly didn't have any use for that kind of thinking. Though not explicitly authorized by the Constitution to do so, Tyler decided that he had become president upon Harrison's death, not acting president or some other watered-down variation, but the whole thing, title and powers and all. And so it has remained for vice presidents succeeding to the presidency in 1850, 1865, 1881, 1901, 1923, 1945, 1963 and 1974.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

April 5, 1792:

Washington Exercises the Veto for the First Time

The power of the veto is a cornerstone of the executive branch of the federal government. In fact, it would be fair to say that an executive without a veto -- such as the President of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, the Articles of Confederation "president" -- would hardly be an executive, just a kind of legislative clerk.

Washington's first term was nearly over when he exercised the very first veto on April 5, 1792. The entire text of his message to Congress is as follows:

"I have maturely considered the act passed by the two Houses entitled 'An act for an apportionment of Representatives among the several States according to the first enumeration,' and I return it to your House, wherein it originated, with the following objections:

"First. The Constitution has prescribed that Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, and there is no one proportion or divisor which, applied to the respective numbers of the States, will yield the number and allotment of Representatives proposed by the bill.

"Second. The Constitution has also provided that the number of Representatives shall not exceed 1 for every 30,000, which restriction is by the context and by fair and obvious construction to be applied to the separate and respective numbers of the States; and the bill has allotted to eight of the States more than 1 for every 30,000."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

April 4, 1841:

William Henry Harrison Dies

"There's Taylor, there's Tyler, there's Fillmore and there's Hayes. There's William Henry Harrison, 'I died in thirty days!' "

-- "The Mediocre Presidents," a song on The Simpsons

But apparently it wasn't just a virus that did in the 9th President of the United States, William Henry Harrison. It's conceivable that he might have recovered from his illness had he been able to rest properly, which was the only really effective medicine available for his condition in the 1840s. The president didn't get the rest he needed, however.

"General Harrison was ... smothered by the most shameless swarm of fortune hunters the capital had seen since the coming of another Hero twelve years before [Jackson, 1829], wrote famed biographer Marquis James in Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President (1937). "They filled every room [of the lower level of the White House] and defied eviction. The President opened a door, expecting to meet his Cabinet. The spoilsmen crushed about him. Soon the Executive's pockets were filled with their petitions, then his hat, then his arms; and thus he staggered upstairs to revive himself with 'stimulants.' "

As President Harrison's condition worsened, the best that medicine could offer was employed to restore him to health: "Blistering of the skin was a standard method to draw evil humors from the body," noted Edward B. MacMahon and Leonard Curry in Medical Cover-Ups in the White House (1987). "Given that the president was sick with pneumonia, the President's physicians tried blistering the right side of his chest. The President did not improve.

"Next, the doctors applied suction cups to the blistered skin to draw out the evil, elusive substance that weakened him. Then the doctors gave him ipecac to induce vomiting. They also gave him calomel and castor oil to purge his bowels. Then they administered sedative to the fast-weakening President in the form of opium and brandy. As a last resort, they tried Virginia snakeweed, a Seneca Indian remedy. Nothing worked."

William Henry Harrison died at early in the morning of April 4, 1841, a month after assuming office. He might not have done much as president, but his presidential fame was thus assured anyway.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April 3, 1996:

Ron Brown Dies

Being a member of the president's cabinet hasn't traditionally been hazardous duty, but like presidents, cabinet secretaries do die in office from time to time. Eleven years ago today, Ronald Harmon Brown, 30th Secretary of Commerce and 54 years of age, died in a plane crash along with all 34 others while his flight attemped a landing in Cilipi, Croatia. He was on official business at the time, a trade mission.

Commerce secretaries aren't as generally well known as some other cabinet members, such as state and defense, but it is a plum job in charge of a large bureaucracy. It was Brown's reward for being such a successful Democratic Party operative, and instrumental in the election of President Clinton.

Brown was only the second commerce secretary to die in office since the post was created in 1913 by the separation of the Department of Commerce and Labor into two parts, and the other death was violent as well. Howard Malcolm Baldridge, who was 26th Secretary of Commerce for over six years under Ronald Reagan, died on July 25, 1987, some days after a horse he was riding fell on him while he was participating in a rodeo in California.

Monday, April 02, 2007

April 2, 1917:

Wilson Asks For War

The Constitution specifically delegates war-making powers to Congress, but presidents have often enough had a way of waging wars when they saw fit. On April 2, 1917, just after the beginning of his second term, President Woodrow Wilson spoke before a joint session of Congress that he had called and asked for war against Imperial Germany.

The proximate rationale was Germany's resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare. But of course Wilson -- in a very Wilsonian way -- spoke of higher causes, especially the defense of democracy. It was in this speech that he used the term of phrase "the world must be made safe for democracy."

"The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind," he asserted. "It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of; but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind.

"Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion." (The entire speech is here.)

Not everyone was behind Wilson at this point. Maverick Sen. Robert La Follette Sr. of Wisconsin (also pictured) was having none of it. He didn't believe the "safe for democracy" rationale one bit, and asked if the American people really wanted to get into the world's bloodiest war: "Will the President and the supporters of this war bill submit it to a vote of the people before the declaration of war goes into effect?" he said on the Senate floor two days later. "Until we are willing to do that, it becomes us to offer as an excuse for our entry into the war the unsupported claim that this war was forced upon the German people by their government 'without their previous knowledge or approval.'

"Who has registered the knowledge or approval of the American people of the course this Congress is called upon to take in declaring war upon Germany? Submit the question to the people, you who support it. You who support it dare not do it, for you know that by a vote of more than ten to one the American people as a body would register their declaration against it." (La Follette's speech is here.)

President Wilson carried the day. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for war with Germany, with six senators and 50 congressmen voting no.