Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 24, 1862:

Martin Van Buren Dies

DPD is taking a summer vacation for a couple of weeks, but promises to be back in time for one of the main dead presidential anniversaries in the whole calendar on August 8 and 9, which involves a certain disgraced president and his better-liked successor, both within living memory but who nevertheless have gone on to their rewards.

Today is the anniversary of President Martin Van Buren's death in 1862. Van Buren, master political organizer and successful New York politician, as well as Eighth Vice President and then Eighth President of the United States, might be an example of the Peter Principle: he had risen to the level of his incompetency, the presidency. Or perhaps he was just luckless enough to follow a popular president, Andrew Jackson, be at the helm during the Panic of 1837, and then face another popular candidate, William Henry Harrison, in the election of 1840, which van Buren lost.

In 1990, American Heritage magazine had this to say about why Van Buren lost the presidency 150 years earlier: "President Martin Van Buren was by all accounts a likable man, but his cultivated manners were not seen as virtuous by the voters who had elected Andrew Jackson before him. The Whig party decided to exploit Van Buren’s reputation as an aristocrat in the 1840 presidential election by reviving the log-cabin populism with which Jackson had beaten them 12 years earlier.

"On April 14, Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy 'strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE,' in a 'PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.' Van Buren was too vain to eat 'those old and unfashionable dishes, hog and hominy, fried meat and gravy, … [and] a mug of hard cider,' Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and 'Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,' into which the President dipped his 'pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.'

The only response from the White House was a simple certification that 'no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.' Ogle published his 'gold spoon oration' at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the 'hard-cider man' and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 23, 1885: U.S. Grant Dies

Cancer caught up with Ulysses S. Grant in the summer of 1885, famously dying just after completing his memoirs, which are considered one of the finest of that genre. Another, more visible, monument to the life of Grant is in New York City -- officially the General Grant National Memorial, popularly Grant's Tomb.

"[Grant] was laid to rest in New York City on August 8th," notes the National Park Service. "Approximately 90,000 people from around the country and the world donated a total of over $600,000 towards construction of his tomb, the largest public fundraising effort ever at that time. Designed by architect John Duncan, the granite and marble structure was completed in 1897 and remains the largest mausoleum in North America. Over one million people attended the parade and dedication ceremony of Grant's Tomb, on April 27, 1897."

President McKinley led the event, held on what would have been Grant's 75th birthday. For the occasion, verse by Walt Whitman eulogizing Grant was read:

As one by one withdraw the lofty actors
From that great play on history's stage eterne
That lurid, partial act of War and peace -- of old and new contenting,
Fought out through wrath, fears, dark dismays, and many a long suspense;
All past -- and since, in countless graves receding, mellowing,
Victor's and vanquish'd -- Lincoln's and Lee's -- now thou with them,
Man of the mighty days -- and equal to the days!
Thou from the prairies! -- tangled and many-vein'd and hard has been thy part,
To admiration has it been enacted!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

July 22, 1923:

Robert J. Dole's Birthday

Bob Dole, who celebrates his 84th birthday today, has a unique distinction among men who have aspired to be President of the United States. He's the only person to have been nominated for for both vice president (1976) and president (1996) by a major party, yet lose both times. There have been some who have won the vice presidency only to lose in their bids for the top job; and others have lost a vice presidential bid but who captured the presidency later.

Will he be remember for these unsuccessful bids for high office, his long tenure in the US Senate, his Viagra commercials, or his habit of referring to himself in the third person?

During the 1996 campaign, even the National Review seemed exasperated by the habit (from the column Misanthrope's Corner ):

"Welcome to the Doppelganger school of American oratory. At the rate Dole is going, his rhetorical onanism soon will become so deeply embedded in the soil of American politics that Pat Buchanan will have yet another abomination to rip out 'root and branch' -- except that Buchanan has begun using the third person, too.

"How long has Dole been doing this? A search of my files turned up a clipping from November 1992 in which he assured gloomy Republicans that Bill Clinton would not have a legislative honeymoon because: 'Bob Dole is going to be his chaperone.'

"From what is known about speech habits, it probably started much earlier than a mere four years ago. This is a question for a serious scholar to explore. If Dole wins the nomination, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason can do a film biography to show at the GOP convention. After the sunny optimism she brought to The Man from Hope, she can demonstrate her versatility by producing The Pronouning in collaboration with Stephen King.

"The camera pans over Russell, Kansas, following the candidate through his formative years . . .

To his mother: 'Bob Dole's hungry.'

To his father: 'Can Bob Dole have a quarter?'

To his teachers: 'Bob Dole didn't do it.'

To nice girls: 'Would you like to go to the picture show with Bob Dole?'

To bad girls: 'If you did it with all those other guys, how come you won't do it with Bob Dole?'

Saturday, July 21, 2007

July 21, 1899:

Robert G. Ingersoll Dies

Largely forgotten now, Robert G. Ingersoll (pictured, left) was famed in his day -- the late 19th century -- as a politician and freethinking agnostic. He also had a walk-on part in presidential history. In 1876, he made a famed nominating speech on behalf of James G. Blaine of Maine (pictured, right). Blaine came within a whisker of being nominated by the Republican National Convention that year -- short 28 votes at one point -- but ultimately lost out to Rutherford B. Hayes. Blaine was nominated in 1884, but lost the election to Grover Cleveland.

Ingersoll's nominating speech is known as the "Plumbed Knight Speech," a fine example of high Victorian oratory. The last part of it went as follows: "This is a grand year—a year filled with the recollections of the Revolution; filled with proud and tender memories of the sacred past; filled with the legends of liberty; a year in which the sons of freedom will drink from the fountain of enthusiasm; a year in which the people call for a man who has preserved in Congress what our soldiers won upon the field; a year in which we call for the man who has torn from the throat of treason the tongue of slander—a man that has snatched the mask of democracy from the hideous face of rebellion—a man who, like an intellectual athlete, stood in the arena of debate, challenged all comers, and who, up to the present moment, is a total stranger to defeat.

"Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lances full and fair against the brazen foreheads of every defamer of his country and maligner of its honor. For the Republican party to desert a gallant man now is worse than if an army should desert their general upon the field of battle.

"James G. Blaine is now, and has been for years, the bearer of the sacred standard of the Republic. I call it sacred because no human being can stand beneath its folds without becoming, and without remaining, free.

"Gentlemen of the Convention, in the name of the great Republic, the only republic that ever existed upon this earth; in the name of all her defenders and of all her supporters; in the name of all her soldiers living; in the name of all her soldiers who died upon the field of battle; and in the name of those who perished in the skeleton clutch of famine at Andersonville and Libby, whose sufferings he so eloquently remembers, Illinois nominates for the next president of this country that prince of parliamentarians, that leader of leaders—James G. Blaine."

The entire speech is here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

July 20, 1969:

Nixon Calls the Moon

Thirty-eight years ago, President Nixon made the longest long-distance phone call in history when he spoke to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon. Kennedy got the effort going (see May 25), Johnson pushed the program hard, but Nixon got to make the call and leave his signature on the plaques left on the lunar landers. Such are the vagaries of politics.

Nixon: Hello Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done. For every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives, and for people all over the world I am sure that they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world, and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one—one in their pride in what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Armstrong: Thank you, Mr. President. It is a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States, but men of peaceable nations, men with a vision for the future. It is an honor for us to be able to participate here today.

Nixon: Thank you very much, and I look forward, all of us look forward, to seeing you on the Hornet on Thursday.

Armstrong: Thank you. We look forward to that very much, sir.

A YouTube clip of part of the call is here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 19, 1922:

George McGovern's Birthday

Today is George McGovern's 85th birthday. His distinction in presidential history is being on the losing end of a landslide -- to a president who later resigned in disgrace. The forces arrayed against the McGovern candidacy in 1972 were formidable, and it's hard to imagine another outcome for that election.

Hard, but not impossible, as Michael Leahy wrote in the Washington Post (Feb. 20, 2005) in "What Might Have Been."

"... Like most presidential nominees who never won the big prize, [McGovern] has become less a major figure than an intriguing footnote... another answer to a set of trivia questions whose correct responses include the names Dukakis, Mondale, Humphrey, Goldwater, Stevenson, Dewey, Willkie, Landon, Smith, Davis, Cox, Parker, Bryan, Blaine and McClellan -- the good, the bad, the forgotten.

"He was a history professor at Dakota Wesleyan before he ever entered politics, which has been a blessing and a curse: The What Ifs never go away. He wonders, for example, what would have happened to his political career had one of the many men to whom he offered the vice presidential nomination in 1972 -- including Edward Kennedy and defeated rival Edmund Muskie -- said yes. Running out of choices and time at the Democratic National Convention, he turned finally to a young senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton, who enthusiastically accepted, only to be forced off the ticket after it was learned that he had been hospitalized three times for depression and had twice undergone electroshock treatment in the 1960s.

"What if, McGovern asks, the Democratic convention that year in Miami had not been so chaotic that the vice presidential nomination process, which consumed hours and included several surprise challenges to Eagleton, delayed McGovern from delivering his acceptance speech until 2:48 a.m. Eastern time, by which time most Americans had gone to bed?

"What if, he asks, a group of anti-McGovern forces at the convention had been successful in their effort to unseat a bloc of committed McGovern delegates? 'I would [then] probably have lost the nomination, unjustly,' he says, smiling faintly. 'The ['76] nomination would then have been mine for the asking. I mean no disrespect to Jimmy Carter, who won our nomination that year, but I was the much better known figure at the time. I think I would have beaten both Carter and [then-President] Gerald Ford.'

"Instead, four years later, Carter won the White House, and McGovern was out of elective politics, losing a bid in Republican South Dakota for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate."

July 18, 1947:

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947

Sixty years ago today, President Truman signed the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, once again re-arranging the succession to the presidency. It was the third act of Congress to do so, following laws passed in 1792 and 1886.

In 1945, President Truman "proposed that Congress revise the order of succession, placing the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in line behind the Vice President and ahead of the cabinet," wrote Thomas H. Neale in the monograph "Presidential and Vice Presidential Succession: Overview and Current Legislation" (2003). "Truman argued that it was more appropriate and democratic to have popularly elected officials first in line to succeed, rather than appointed cabinet officers. Although Truman’s proposal also provided for special elections to fill simultaneous vacancies in the presidency and vice presidency, Congress passed only its succession aspects in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 380).

"Under the Act, if both the presidency and vice presidency are vacant, the Speaker succeeds (after resigning the speakership and his House seat). If there is no Speaker, or if he does not qualify, the President Pro Tempore succeeds, under the same requirements. If there is neither a Speaker nor President Pro Tempore, or if neither qualifies, then the cabinet officers succeed, under the same conditions as applied in the 1886 act. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 has been regularly amended to incorporate new cabinet-level departments into the line of succession, and remains currently in force."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 17, 1744:

Elbridge Gerry's Birthday

Today is the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, Fifth Vice President of the United States, whose (unintentional) enduring legacy is a word known far and wide in the English-speaking world. That’s a lot more than most vice presidents get, though the fact that he was vice president was completely irrelevant to the creation of “gerrymander.”

With the rise of political parties vying for victory in changeable electoral districts in the early 19th century, it was a word whose time had come. It survives because it’s instantly memorable, and of course because it describes an activity that carries on to this day. The Word Detective has the following to say about "gerrymander."

“Dear Word Detective: I was listening to our estimable BBC Radio 4 the other morning, and heard mention of a word that has subsequently perplexed me, namely ‘gerrymandering,’ to divide land into electoral units for the benefit of one group of people. Could you please be so kind as to explain?” -- Simeon Holdship, Brussels, Belgium.

“ ‘Gerrymander,’ meaning to fiddle with the boundaries of electoral districts in order to favor a particular party or constituency, is one of the most wonderful inventions of what H.L. Mencken called ‘the American Language.’

“It all started back in 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry decided to rearrange the contours of the Congressional districts in Massachusetts to boost his Democratic party's fortunes. His partisan maneuver drew the attention of Gilbert Stuart, editorial artist for the Boston Centinel newspaper, who incorporated a map of the new districts into a cartoon. By adding a few lines to the map, Stuart created a creature closely resembling a salamander, a small lizard-like amphibian. Centinel Editor Benjamin Russell immediately dubbed the creature a "Gerrymander," the cartoon became one of the most famous in American history, and "gerrymander" entered the American political lexicon.

Both Gov. Gerry and artist Gilbert Stuart went on to further fame. Gerry eventually became Vice President under James Madison. Stuart's mark was a bit more lasting. In addition to having drawn the very first ‘gerrymander,’ Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait of George Washington that adorns the U.S. one-dollar bill."

Vice President Gerry did not survive his term. In fact, neither of James Madison's veeps did. George Clinton became the first vice president to die in office in 1812, and Gerry followed suit as the second in 1814, after only about a year and a half in office.

Monday, July 16, 2007

July 16, 1999:

John F. Kennedy Jr. Dies

John F. Kennedy Jr. had a few distinctions as a presidential child. He was the first and so far the only child ever born to a president-elect, coming as he did after his father's election but before his inauguration. When his father became president, he and his sister were the first small children to live in the White House since the second Cleveland administration (which included "Baby Ruth" Cleveland, born 1891, and her sisters).

His father famously died at a relatively young 46. JFK Jr. died even younger, at 38. Eric Nolte, a pilot, wrote the following about the death of the son of the 35th President of the United States in a private airplane crash eight years ago:

"In the last few minutes before Kennedy’s little single-engine airplane went into the heavy seas off Martha’s Vineyard, its radar track showed all the evidence of a mind wobbling in the tortured confusion called vertigo. This confusion steered Kennedy down a horrifying spiral to his death on that hot and hazy night in July.

"The kind of bafflement and panic that killed Kennedy arises in a mind as it struggles with the contradictory signals of its inner ear and its rational faculty. The inner ear evolved over millennia to measure one’s movement in relation to the fixed sensation of gravity. Gravity always acts as a vector pointing straight down to the center of the Earth. The inner ear is equipped with tubes of liquid that shift in response to any movement while the mind compares these signals against this fixed sensation of gravity. This balancing apparatus signals the pilot’s mind and says, 'You are strapped into a seat that is now as level as if you were sitting squarely at your kitchen table.'

"By contrast, at the same moment he was feeling perfectly right-side-up, the aircraft instruments, when correctly interpreted, conveyed the message, 'Your wings are tilted steeply to the right of level, the nose of this airplane is pointing way down, and your airspeed is already howling past the red line.'

"The airplane’s flight path creates forces that befuddle one’s awareness of Earth’s gravity. To judge by the sensations in the seat of your pants, you literally can’t tell up from down, left from right. You are as helpless to move out of the airplane’s acceleration field as you would be if you were pinned to the side of a spinning circus centrifuge when the floor drops away.

"And here is the crux of the matter: the pilot’s emotions drowned out the flight instruments’ story about banking and diving at high speed, and screamed out, 'No way! It can’t be! I’m actually flying straight and level! I know it! I feel it’s true!' "

July 15, 1948:

Truman Nominated

A good many Democrats weren't especially excited about nominating Harry Truman for a term of his own as president in 1948. In fact, some elements of the party were so discontent with the president that they bolted -- either to the Progressive Party, which nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace for president and the eccentric Sen. Glen H. Taylor as his running mate; or to Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Mississippi Gov. Fielding L. Wright of the States' Rights Democratic Party, the Dixiecrats.

Some party bosses also wanted to dump Truman and draft Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for the top spot, a sure winner. But when Eisenhower refused to become a candidate for either party that year, the Democrats turned to the devil they knew, whom they also believed would take them to defeat that November.

President Truman wasn't in a defeatist mood when he gave his acceptance speech, a taste of the famed campaign he ran in '48 that did indeed win him a term of his own, contrary to prediction.

"I can't tell you how very much I appreciate the honor which you have just conferred upon me," the president said. "I shall continue to try to deserve it.

"I accept the nomination.

"And I want to thank this convention for its unanimous nomination of my good friend and colleague, Sen. Barkley of Kentucky. He is a great man, and a great public servant. Sen. Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it-- don't you forget that!

"We will do that because they are wrong and we are right, and I will prove it to you in just a few minutes.

"This convention met to express the will and reaffirm the beliefs of the Democratic Party. There have been differences of opinion, and that is the democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote, as they should be.

"Now it is time for us to get together and beat the common enemy. And that is up to you.

"We have been working together for victory in a great cause. Victory has become a habit in our party. It has been elected four times in succession, and I am convinced it will be elected a fifth time in November.

"The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

July 14, 1913:

Leslie Lynch King Jr.'s Birthday

Dead president aficionados know that Gerald R. Ford was not born with that name, and in fact that wasn't his legal name until he was a young man, in 1935. But he did grow up using it. Ford was his stepfather's name; King his biological father's, whom Ford had no contact with growing up -- the better for him, as it turned out. The future president was the product of an unfortunate marriage between Leslie Lynch King Sr. and Dorothy Gardner.

Former Ford administration official James Cannon wrote the following about the circumstances of President Ford's birth in an essay of the president's character: "Dorothy Gardner Ford was a strong and resourceful woman whose own character was tested at the age of twenty. She grew up in a warm, loving family in a small town in northern Illinois where her father prospered as a businessman and served as town mayor.

"In college Dorothy met the brother of her roommate, and fell in love with him. Leslie King was the blond, blue-eyed, charming son of a wealthy Omaha banker who also owned a stage-coach line and a wool business.

"On their honeymoon she discovered that she had made a tragic mistake. Her new husband struck her, not once but repeatedly. When they reached Omaha, where they were to live with his family, she found out that King was not only brutal, but a liar and a drunk. His outward charm concealed a vicious temper...

"She decided to leave King, but discovered she was pregnant. With the encouragement of King's mother and father, she decided to have the baby in Omaha, and did.

"On July 14, 1913, the thirty-eighth President of the United States was born in the mansion of his paternal grandfather, and named Leslie King Jr. Unaccountably, a few days later, King came into his wife's room with a butcher knife and threatened to kill mother, child and nurse. Police were called to restrain him...

"Divorce was rare in 1913, but an Omaha court found King guilty of extreme cruelty, granted custody of the child to the mother, and ordered King to pay alimony and child support. King refused to pay anything...

"By good fortune, in her son's first year, Dorothy Gardner King met a man whose character matched and complemented her own. He was a tall, dark-haired, and amiable bachelor named Gerald R. Ford. By trade, Ford was a paint salesman; in the community he was respected as honest and hardworking, kind and considerate, a man of integrity and character--everything Dorothy's first husband was not.

"The next year she married Jerry Ford and her two-year-old son grew up as Jerry Ford Jr., believing his stepfather was his true father. By Jerry Ford Sr., Dorothy had three more sons, and the Fords provided a strong combination of love and discipline. Ford house rule number one was: 'Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time.' "

Friday, July 13, 2007

July 13, 1985:

Ronald Reagan Incapacitated

On July 13, 1985, for the first time in history, the United States had an acting president -- George HW Bush, back when he was Ronald Reagan's vice president. Reagan formally invoked the 25th amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1967, declaring his incapacity to exercise the powers of the presidency during an operation remove cancerous polyps from his colon. It was the first time the amendment had been evoked; George W. Bush evoked it in 2002, also for surgery.

To invoke the amendment, a president needs to tell the Speaker of the House and the President pro Tempore of the Senate in writing that he's going to be incapacitated. To resume the powers of office, the president needs to send another notice in writing saying as much. (That's the voluntary process for a president being declared incapacitated. There's an involuntary process spelled out in the amendment that's never been invoked.)

Ronald Reagan sent the following letter about his incapacity:

Dear Mr. Speaker (Mr. President:)
I am about to undergo surgery during which time I will be briefly and temporarily incapable of discharging the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States.

After consultation with my Counsel and the Attorney General, I am mindful of the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and of the uncertainties of its application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity. I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one.

Nevertheless, consistent with my long-standing arrangement with Vice President George Bush, and not intending to set a precedent binding anyone privileged to hold this Office in the future, I have determined and it is my intention and direction that Vice President George Bush shall discharge those powers and duties in my stead commencing with the administration of anesthesia to me in this instance.

I shall advise you and the Vice President when I determine that I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of this Office.

May God bless this Nation and us all.

Ronald Reagan

Later that day:

Dear Mr. Speaker (Mr. President:)
Following up on my letter to you of this date, please be advised I am able to resume the discharge of the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President of the United States. I have informed the Vice President of my determination and my resumption of those powers and duties.

Ronald Reagan

George W. Bush was acting president from 11:28 a.m. until 7:22 p.m. that day.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, 1912-2007, requiescat in pace

Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States, 1963-1969

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11, 1804:

Burr Plugs Hamilton

Dueling was already illegal in New York State by 1804, so the Third Vice President of the United States and the former US Secretary of the Treasury crossed over to New Jersey for their duel 203 years ago. It had been a long time in coming: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been political enemies for many years, and specifically Burr blamed Hamilton for torpedoing his try for the presidency in 1800 and the governorship of New York in 1804 -- and with considerable reason. So Burr challenged Hamilton to meet on the field of honor.

American Experience described the scene that summer morning in an episode called "The Duel."

Narrator: Early on July 11th, Aaron Burr and his second, William Van Ness, arrived on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson. At that same moment, Alexander Hamilton reached a dock on the New York shore. He brought with him a doctor and his second, Judge Pendleton, who carried the pistols.

At 7 a.m. Hamilton’s party reached New Jersey and set out for the woods. In a clearing, Burr was waiting. Judge Pendleton described what happened next.

Pendleton: When Hamilton arrived the parties exchanged salutations. The seconds proceeded to make their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces. They cast lots for the choice of position. They then proceeded to load the pistols in each others' presence.

Narrator: Once Hamilton and Burr had loaded pistols in hand, the rules mandated that they take up positions 20 feet apart. When the signal was given, they had three seconds to fire.

It was at this point that the two seconds gave completely different accounts of Hamilton’s actions. According to Judge Pendleton, Hamilton had made a fateful decision: that it would be morally wrong to shoot at Burr.

Pendleton: He had made up his mind not to fire at Burr, but to fire in the air.

Narrator: But according to Burr’s second, William Van Ness, Hamilton showed every sign of intending to shoot his rival.

Van Ness: While his second was explaining the rules, Hamilton raised and leveled his pistol. He then drew from his pocket a pair of spectacles & observed that he was ready to proceed.

Narrator: Van Ness claimed that Hamilton shot at Burr but missed. Whatever Hamilton’s actions, both seconds agreed that after Hamilton fired, Burr stood unhurt. Now, Hamilton’s fate was in Burr’s hands.

Pendleton: The fire of Burr took effect, and Hamilton almost instantly fell. Burr then advanced toward Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to be expressive of regret, but without speaking turned about and withdrew.

Narrator: The doctor was not optimistic about Hamilton's condition.

Dr. Hosack: His look of death I shall never forget. I observed to Mr. Pendleton, that the only chance of reviving him was to immediately get him upon the water.

Narrator: In the hours after the duel, Aaron Burr returned home and, according to his maid, ate a hearty breakfast. Then he sent a note to the doctor to inquire after Hamilton’s health.

Burr had shot Hamilton in the stomach and the bullet had lodged next to his spine. He lingered 36 hours in excruciating pain, with his family and the doctor at his side.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

July 10, 1792:

George Dallas' Birthday

Millard Fillmore fans know that 157 years ago today he took the oath of office as the 13th President of the United States. For more on him and his achievements, see January 7.

Fillmore may be the nation's most obscure president, but vice presidents always trump presidents in obscurity. George M. Dallas, the 11th Vice President of the United States, serving during James K. Polk's term, was born this day in 1792 in Philadelphia.

The city in Texas may be named for him, but that isn't quite clear. According to the Dallas Historical Society: "Over the years, there has been a lot of debate about the name Dallas. We know that Dallas County was named for George Mifflin Dallas... However, all that is known about the origin of Dallas for the name of the city is that John Neely Bryan named it for 'his friend, Dallas' There are several candidates for whom this friend might be.

"The town was known as Dallas early in 1842. At that time, George Dallas was a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia. He had never been very far west, and Bryan had never been very far east, so it's doubtful they ever met..."

In any case, George M. Dallas, a Jacksonian Democrat, was variously a prominent attorney in Philadelphia, mayor of that city, US Senator from Pennsylvania, and US Minster to Russia before becoming vice president; and US Minister to Britain afterwards. As for the vice presidency, he had this to say:

"Except that he is President of the Senate, [the vice president] forms no part of the government:—he enters into no administrative sphere:—he has practically no legislative, executive, or judicial functions:—while the Senate sits, he presides, that's all:—he doesn't debate or vote, (except to end a tie) he merely preserves the order and courtesy of business . . . [When Congress is in recess] where is he to go? what has he to do?—no where, nothing! He might, to be sure, meddle with affairs of state, rummage through the departments, devote his leisure to the study of public questions and interests, holding himself in readiness to counsel and to help at every emergency in the great onward movement of the vast machine:—But, then, recollect, that this course would sometimes be esteemed intrusive, sometimes factious, sometimes vain and arrogant, and, as it is prescribed by no law, it could not fail to be treated lightly because guaranteed by no responsibility."

July 9, 1850:

Zachary Taylor Dies

Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States, got sick on July 4, 1850, and grew progressively worse after that with fever, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and cramps. Doctors gave him calomel and opium, and toward the end bled him. None of that did any good, and he died on July 9, the second president to die in office, a little more than nine years after William Henry Harrison.

It's not so remarkable that he was carried off by some infectious disease in 1850, which killed a lot of people. Perhaps more remarkable is that he survived as long as he did during his military career, which began in 1808. During his service, he suffered yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, and assorted other fevers and sicknesses -- the lot of the pre-modern soldier. As president, he spend much of the summer of 1849 ill with severe diarrhea and fever, and the nation feared for his life at that time. So the 66-year-old Taylor wasn't in the best shape by the summer of 1850, and Washington City wasn't a particularly healthy place to live in those days.

Taylor left behind one of the notable what-ifs of presidential history. Would he have supported about the Compromise of 1850, as his successor, President Fillmore, did? And if not, what would have happened? An early attempt at secession successfully suppressed in person by President Taylor, as a commander in the field, that would ward off disunion for a generation? A bungled military attempt by the president that would ensure Southern independence? Something else not involving Taylor's military experience?

July 9 is also the day, in 1896, that William Jennings Bryan gave the speech that made him famous and won him the first of three nominations by the Democratic Party for president. For more on the "Cross of Gold" speech, see March 19.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

July 8, 1957:

Grace Coolidge Dies

Grace Coolidge, nee Goodhue, died 50 years ago today, unless reports that she died a little before midnight on July 7, the anniversary of one of her son's death, are correct. She married future president Calvin Coolidge in 1905 and survived him by nearly a quarter-century.

She among the most enthusiastic baseball fans ever to live in the White House, according to baseball writer David Pietrusza. "...during the Roaring Twenties, the First Lady could be regularly seen at Washington's Griffith Stadium, often chatting with Senators players (the Coolidges attended the wedding of Senators 'Boy Wonder' manager Bucky Harris in October, 1926 -- of course, Harris had married the daughter of an administration official, Alien Property Custodian Howard Sutherland) and keeping hubby Calvin from bolting the park after perfunctorily performing his duties as ceremonial first-ball tosser," writes Pietrusza in "Grace Coolidge, First Lady of Baseball."

" 'She used to come to games,' Harris recalled, 'and sit right by the Senators' dugout. She came to the games with Cal and stayed there when the President would leave early. and then she'd come to other games alone.

" 'All the Washington players knew her and spoke to her. she was the most rabid fan I ever knew in the White House.'

"During the first game of the 1924 World Series which featured the local Senators versus John McGraw's New York Giants, the president, never one to idle time on entertainments, suddenly stood up to leave. Washington had never been in a World Series before. The immortal Walter Johnson was on the mound. It was the ninth inning, the score knotted at 2-2. Grace Coolidge sputtered, 'Where do you think you're going? You sit down,' as she grabbed his coat tails.

"The chief executive sat right back down."

Also, Nelson A. Rockefeller, 41st Vice President of the United States, would have been 99 today. He never realized his dream of capturing the presidency, and never in fact was nominated for that position or the vice presidency by the Republican Party. He remains only one of two people appointed the job under rules specified by the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Curiously, Nelson A. shared a birthday with his grandfather, patriarch John D. Rockefeller Sr., born July 8, 1839. The elder Rockefeller lived to be nearly 98, and presumably didn't die in the company of a young mistress.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

July 7, 1865:

Lincoln Assassination Conspirators Executed

Unlike the other presidential assassinations, the murder of President Lincoln actually was the result of a conspiracy, and by the summer of 1865, the federal government had dispensed punishment to those it determined were in on the plot. It did so in an unorthodox way, through a military commission, which raised eyebrows then, as it still does.

Still, for conspirators such as Lewis Powell and David Herold, there was no question of their guilt -- Powell had attacked Secretary of State William Seward, and Herold was with him. Later Herold was captured at the same time that John Wilkes Booth was shot dead. George Atzerodt was likewise clearly guilty of conspiring to kill Vice President Johnson, though he chickened out when it came time to try.

But what about Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where the plot was hatched? It seems likely that she knew what was going on, and perhaps even helped, but the evidence isn't absolutely conclusive. A shadow of a doubt might have saved her in a civilian court, but the military commission thought she was guilty.

"On June 29, 1865, the Military Commission met in secret session to begin its review of the evidence in the seven-week long trial," wrote Douglas Linder in Famous American Trials. "A guilty verdict could come with a majority vote of the nine-member commission; death sentences required the votes of six members. The next day, it reached its verdicts. The Commission found each of the prisoners guilty of at least one of the conspiracy charges. Four of the prisoners (Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold) were sentenced 'to be hanged by the neck until he [or she] be dead.' Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd and Michael O'Laughlen were sentenced to 'hard labor for life, at such place at the President shall direct.' Edman Spangler received a six-year sentence.

"The Commission forwarded its sentences and the trial record to President Johnson for his review. Five of the nine Commission members, in the transmitted record, recommended to the President -- because of 'her sex and age' -- that he reduce Mary Surratt's punishment to life in prison. On July 5, Johnson approved all of the Commission's sentences, including the death sentence for Surratt.

"Surratt's lawyers mounted a frantic effort to save their client's life, hurriedly preparing a petition for habeas corpus that evening. The next morning, Surratt's attorneys succeeded in convincing Judge Wylie of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to issue the requested writ. President Johnson quashed the effort to save Surratt from an afternoon hanging when he issued an order suspending the writ of habeas corpus 'in cases such as this.'

"Shortly after one-thirty on the afternoon of July 7, 1865, the trap of the gallows installed in the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Building was sprung, and the four condemned prisoners fell to their deaths. Reporters covering the event reported that the last words from the gallows stand came from George Atzerodt who said, just before he fell, 'May we meet in another world.' "

July 6, 1921:

Nancy Reagan's Birthday

Though no one knew it at the time, the only movie ever made to star both a president and first lady was 1957's Hellcats of the Navy, a submarine picture with Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, who turns 86 today. Davis had married Reagan in 1951, a few years after his marriage with another actress, Jane Wyman, ended. It was Nancy's last picture; her husband's was The Killers in 1964, just before he started on the political path that would take the both of them to the White House in the 1980s.

For a Hollywood marriage, the Reagans' was remarkably durable: about 53 years. That's also quite long among presidential marriages, only a few of which have been over 50 years. Both John Adams and his son John Qunicy were married over 50 years, and in the 20th century, besides the Reagans, the Trumans, Eisenhowers and Nixons also celebrated golden wedding anniversaries. George H.W. and Barbara Bush have been married the longest thus far, however, over 62 years now.

As for Hellcats of the Navy, "Submarine movies are almost an entire genre unto themselves... [for example], there has to be a 'silent running' scene where the crew hunker down as quiet as church mice and try to avoid detection by an enemy destroyer," notes the movie review web site Rotten Tomatoes. "The destroyer naturally detects the sub at some point, and men brace themselves against the impact of depth charges. Damage ensues, with water leaking in and spraying about.

"Hellcats of the Navy is no exception, following the requirements of the submarine genre to the letter. There are also several conventions of war films that this movie follows; some characters are killed in action, of course, and they tend to be exactly the ones a viewer would expect. If this were an episode of Star Trek, they would all have been wearing red shirts. There is also a fairly unrealistic moment where Commander Abbott [Reagan] dons a wetsuit and ventures outside the sub by himself to try to effect important repairs; this is, of course, strictly a Hollywood idea, and one could easily imagine William Shatner doing exactly the same thing.

"Another war movie cliché is the love triangle, involving a conveniently placed nurse. The nurse in this case is Lt. Helen Blair, played of course by future First Lady Nancy Davis. Her triangle involves Abbott, who recently ended a relationship with her, and Wes Barton, an officer aboard Abbott's sub, who has been seeing her on the rebound. Davis isn't given much to do in her part, but she does a good job of playing the slightly war-weary realist. Hers is a role that calls for a certain maturity, not starry-eyed romantic innocence, and she does well with what she has to work with. The conventions of the genre would normally call for her to be merely a prize for Abbott and Barton to fight over, but both the script and her performance give her an identity and strength beyond what one might normally expect."

Today is also George W. Bush's birthday (61), but he is still very much with us.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

July 5, 1902:

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.'s Birthday

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., grandson of the famed Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge who was President Wilson's nemesis on the League of Nations, is himself a presidential history footnote. For one thing, in 1952 he was Dwight Eisenhower's campaign manager. At the same time, he was running for re-election to the US Senate from Massachusetts, but lost that contest to John F. Kennedy.

His services to Eisenhower did not go unrewarded, however, and the new president made Lodge ambassador to the United Nations. He clearly didn't share his grandfather's disdain for international organizations.

Lodge never ran for president himself, but in 1960 he was Richard Nixon's running mate, and lost the vice presidency by the same paper-thin margin that put Kennedy and Johnson into office that year. Later, on March 10, 1964, in something of a surprise, he won the New Hampshire Republican primary, capturing a little more than 33,000 votes, or 35.5 percent of the votes cast, as a write-in candidate. He had had a small, but dedicated band of supporters in that state, it seems.

Lodge's surprise in New Hampshire didn't give him any momentum in the rest of the contest for the nomination. The party's ultimate nominee, Barry Goldwater, was second in the New Hampshire primary that year, just ahead of Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Nixon, another write-in, was fourth, and poor old Harold Stassen was sixth -- behind Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman to be elected in her own right to both the US House and Senate.

July 4, 1826:

A Most Remarkable Coincidence

It's one of the first facts that presidential enthusiasts learn: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day of the same year, and not just any day of any year, but July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day that the United States declared independence. Seldom do lifespans dovetail so neatly with historical anniversaries.

Adams and Jefferson weren't the only presidents to die on Independence Day, however. James Monroe did as well, but five years later in 1831, and thus July 4 is the only day in all of the calendar to claim three chief executives. Only two dates have claimed two: March 8 (Fillmore and Taft) and December 26 (Truman and Ford).

The only vice president to die on July 4 -- not counting Adams and Jefferson, who held that post before the presidency -- was Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Lincoln's first vice president. He held on until the summer of 1891.

Only one president celebrated his birthday on the Fourth of July, Calvin Coolidge, who was born in 1872. Coolidge also happens to be the only vice president ever born on that patriotic day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

July 3, 1754 & 1775:

Pivotal Days for Washington

July 3, 1754, was a miserable day for Lt. Colonel George Washington, 22. After a day's fighting, he was obliged to negotiate the surrender of his position, known to history as Ft. Necessity, in western Pennsylvania. The British under Washington had just lost the first skirmish of a worldwide war with the French, whose North American theater is known as the French and Indian War.

According to the National Park Service: "On the morning of July 3, a force of about 600 French and 100 Indians approached the fort. After the French took up positions in the woods, Washington withdrew his men to the entrenchments. Rain fell throughout the day, flooding the marshy ground. Both sides suffered casualties, but the British losses were greater than French and Indian losses.

"The fighting continued sporadically until about 8 p.m. Then Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers, commander of the French force... requested a truce to discuss the surrender of Washington's command. Near midnight, after several hours of negotiation, the terms were reduced to writing and signed by Washington and Mackay. The British were allowed to withdraw with the honors of war, retaining their baggage and weapons, but having to surrender their swivel guns. The British troops left Fort Necessity for Wills Creek on the morning of July 4, From there they marched back to Virginia. The French burned Fort Necessity and afterwards returned to Fort Duquesne."

Things were a lot different 21 exactly years later. One the same day in July, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the middle-aged Washington assumed command of the colonial forces fighting British regulars -- and not even yet for independence.

From "Washington Takes Charge" by Joseph J. Ellis in the January 2005 Smithsonian magazine: "The siege of Boston from June 1775 to March 1776 marked Washington’s debut as commander in chief. Here, for the first time, he encountered the logistical challenges he would face during the ensuing years of the war. He met many of the men who would comprise his general staff for the duration. And here he demonstrated both the strategic instincts and the leadership skills that would sustain him, and sometimes lead him astray, until the glorious end.

"The story of the siege can be told in one sentence: Washington’s makeshift army kept more than 10,000 British troops bottled up in the city for more than nine months, at which point the British sailed away to Halifax. Less a battle than a marathon staring match, the conflict exposed the anomalous political circumstance created by the Continental Congress, which was prepared to initiate war a full year before it was ready to declare American independence.

"Although Washington subsequently claimed that he knew by the early fall of 1775 that King George III was determined to pursue a military rather than political solution to the imperial crisis, he went along with the prevalent fiction that the British garrison in Boston contained 'Ministerial Troops,' meaning that they did not represent the king’s wishes so much as those of evil and misguided ministers."

Monday, July 02, 2007

July 2, 1881:

President James A. Garfield Shot

In the summer of 1881, a delusional office-seeker named Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield, who had been president only since March of that year, at Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington, DC. One bullet grazed the president's arm, the other lodged in his chest.

For Guiteau's fate, see June 30. As for Garfield, the ever-informative Dr. Zebra notes that, "At his trial, the assassin Guiteau admitted shooting the President, but denied killing him. Instead, he claimed that Garfield's physicians killed him. Although Guiteau was executed because his defense was not strong enough, he was probably correct.

"Garfield's original wound was 3.5 inches long, and ended with the bullet lodged in a harmless part of the abdomen. The wound was probed by the fingers of numerous physicians during the rest of Garfield's life so that, by the time of his death, the wound track was 20 inches long and oozing pus.

"It seems reasonable that the terminal event in Garfield's life was a myocardial infarction. However, the wound could have contributed to the terminal event in three ways, all of them derived from the fact that Garfield was mightily infected for a period of three months:

1. It seems reasonable to suppose that Garfield had anemia of chronic disease, which would have lowered the ischemic threshold.
2. Chronic infection could have led to amyloidosis. If it affected the heart, then it is not surprising that an ischemic event would have been so rapidly fatal.
3. It is becoming increasingly clear that coronary atherosclerosis is an inflammatory, perhaps infectious, disease. It is possible that Garfield's chronic inflammation and infection could have accelerated atherosclerosis."

Also: On July 2, 1932, Franklin Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1932 in Chicago. It was the first of FDR's great radio speeches, and "New Deal" entered the American political lexicon at that time.

On July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill whose passage owed much to the new president's political skills. Its more formal title includes "To enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes."

Sunday, July 01, 2007

July 1, 1898:

TR at Kettle & San Juan Hills

Teddy Roosevelt, who grew up hearing stories of the Great Rebellion, hankered for a piece of that kind of action for himself, and he got his chance in Cuba during the war with Spain. After the outbreak for hostilities, Roosevelt gave up his post as assistant secretary of the Navy and was instrumental in organizing the 1st US Cavalry Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, which is much better known by their nickname "Rough Riders."

According to Scott Mingus Jr., writing in "Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at Kettle Hill" at "Around noon [on July 1, 1898], the First Infantry Division began their assault on San Juan Hill with the support of General Joseph Wheeler's Cavalry. Seeing the attack on adjacent San Juan Hill starting, Roosevelt still in position in reserve below Kettle Hill became more and more impatient. Finally he was given the command to start the Rough Riders' assault up Kettle Hill. Roosevelt, feeling very excited, began to ride up and down the line urging the men forward. Seeing Roosevelt personally urging them forward, momentum quickly spread and finally the entire regiment was on the move forward, passing the forward lines of other American units...

"As the American cavalry and infantry reached the lower slopes of the hill, Spanish fire became more deadly and more accurate. But... the Rough Riders and their supports continued to steadily climb the hill. As the Americans reached the second fenceline, it became apparent to the Spanish defenders that to avoid hand-to-hand combat, they must withdraw. ...then they began to withdraw.'

"Reaching the top of the hill, the Rough Riders established some initial defensive measures to secure the area as the Spanish on the higher San Juan Hill began to fire upon them. Seeing that the attack on the adjacent height was not going too well as heavy fire and other obstacles were stopping the forward progress, Roosevelt himself decided to lead a charge, a decision reinforced when three Gatling guns got to the top of Kettle Hill to support an attack.

"Shouting for his men to follow, he jumped over a barbed wire fence and ran down the slope. Roosevelt ran about one hundred yards when he turned around to notice that only five of his troopers had followed him down the slope into the swale between Kettle and San Juan Hills. Roosevelt turned around and returned to the crest of Kettle Hill where his troopers claimed they did not hear his order to charge. Forming them quickly into an assault line, Roosevelt again ordered the charge.

"This time, the entire regiment with support from other nearby forces went forward towards San Juan Hill.... By two thirty in the afternoon, the entire heights were possession of the American troops. With the victory at San Juan Heights, the Americans were able to move into the city of Santiago and establish a good offensive position to fire on the Spanish fleet in the harbor. With the subsequent destruction of the Spanish fleet from an attack from Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, the Americans were able to win the battle, and force and early end to the war.

"Theodore Roosevelt's personal actions at the battle of San Juan Heights would win him the nation's highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.... His enthusiasm, confidence, bravery, and high regard for his troopers would him enduring fame with his Rough Riders, who associated victory solely with Roosevelt, not with their actual commander Leonard Wood, who has all but been forgotten by history."

Curiously, Roosevelt didn't receive the Medal of Honor in his lifetime; he wasn't nearly as popular with the establishment in Washington as with the public after his deeds on the San Juan Heights. The medal was awarded to him posthumously by President Clinton toward the end of his administration in January 2001. In receiving it, TR became the only president ever to win a Congressional Medal of Honor.