Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Twain Didn't Care for TR

Mark Twain had opinions about many things, including some of the presidents of his time. On the occasion of Twain's birthday, the following are items he wrote toward the end of his life, expressing himself on former President Cleveland and President Theodore Roosevelt, as well as President-elect Taft.

On Grover Cleveland: In a letter to Jean Clemens, June 19, 1908.

Of all our public men of today he stands first in my reverence & admiration, & the next one stands two-hundred-&-twenty-fifth. He is the only statesman we have now. ... Cleveland drunk is a more valuable asset to this country than the whole batch of the rest of our public men sober. He is high-minded; all his impulses are great & pure & fine. I wish we had another of this sort.

On Theodore Roosevelt: In a letter written March 6, 1908, and reprinted in the New York Times in 1912, after Twain's death.

Our people have adored this showy charlatan as perhaps no impostor of his brood has been adored since the Golden Calf, so it is to be expected that the Nation will want him back again after he is done hunting other wild animals heroically in Africa, with the safeguard and advertising equipment of a park of artillery and a brass band.

On William Howard Taft: In a letter dated March 2, 1909, two days before Taft was inaugurated. It too was reprinted in the New York Times in 1912.

You can't help but like Mr. Taft. The country likes him and respects him; and I want him to make the best people in the country continue to respect him and every now and then dislike him -- sure proof, in a public servant, that he is doing his whole duty, as he sees it, regardless of personal consequences. He has the natural gifts, the culture, the experience, the training, the sanity, the right-mindedness, the honesty, the truthfulness, the modesty, and the dignity properly requisite in a President of the United States, the most responsible post on the planet. In a word, he possesses every qualification the other one [Theodore Roosevelt] was destitute of.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reagan Shooter Wants More Freedom

The Associated Press has reported that would-be presidential assassin John "I Love You Jodie" Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan and three other people more than 30 years ago, is seeking to spend more time away from a Washington, DC, mental hospital "with the goal of eventually allowing him to live outside the facility full-time."

Hinckley is already allowed to visit his mother's home in Virginia. His lawyers have asked Judge Paul L. Friedman to allow longer visits of 17 and 24 days duration. Unsurprisingly, the government opposes the plan, calling Hinckley, now 56, not "sufficiently well to alleviate the concern that this violence may be repeated."

The assassination attempt was a nearer thing than was generally understood at the time. In 2001, Larry King interviewed Dr. Joseph Giordano, head of the trauma team that treated Reagan on March 30, 1981, after the president had been hit by one of Hinckley's bullets ricocheting off the side of the presidential limousine.

King: Dr. Giordano, how close to death was President Reagan?

Giordano: He had a very serious injury, Larry, and I think he was close to death. I think that the fact that he came immediately to George Washington [Hospital] and that there was a trauma team there that were quickly able to resuscitate him, saved the day.

He came in with a blood pressure that was barely obtainable, and he left a half-hour later from the emergency room with a blood pressure that was that essentially normal. In fact, it was above normal. So, that period of time was critical, and I think that happily, it worked out very well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nazi Plot to Kill the Big Three?

Was there a Nazi plot to assassinate FDR, Churchill and Stalin at their meeting in Tehran during the last days of November 1943? Maybe.

The three Allied leaders met at the Soviet Embassy, which was across the street from the British Embassy. FDR was staying at the Soviet Embassy to avoid the necessity of being driven to the site each day from the American Embassy, more than a mile away, possibly exposing himself to attack. The story is that Hitler assigned Otto Skorzeny, the SS officer best known for freeing Mussolini from captivity in July 1943, to lead an effort to kill the Big Three during their meeting. Before any attempt was made, however, the Soviets got wind of it, and the plot was called off.

In the mid-1960s, Laslo Havas, a Hungarian, published a book about the supposed plot, Hitler's Plot to Kill the Big Three. Much of the information available about the plot, code-named Operation Long Jump, seems to come from that book and Russian sources.

Gary Kern, writing for the CIA's Studies in Intelligence, vol. 47, No. 1, 2003, is skeptical about the whole thing, and posits that Stalin and his men concocted the tale, which was later embellished by the KBG to glorify the skill of Soviet intelligence, which was credited with thwarting the plot. "... the NKVD retained the story of the plot and, twenty years later during a publicity campaign, its successor, the KGB, began to promote it in the press," Kern wrote.

"In its new guise, the purported plot against FDR acquired a wealth of details and a sterling cast of characters, most notably SS Capt. Otto Skorzeny, one of the legendary figures of World War II. In the literature generated by the KGB, Skorzeny was the man designated by Hitler to lead the attack on the Big Three in Tehran and, in one stroke, turn the war around. But — the story went — the Nazis did not count on NKVD ace Nikolai Kuznetsov, who, posing as a Wehrmacht lieutenant in occupied Ukraine, befriended a hard-drinking and talkative SS officer named von Ortel, who blurted out revealing tidbits of the plan... As might be expected, Skorzeny’s memoirs mention no such plan and the various Soviet accounts differ among themselves in names, places, and other specifics.

"In fact, a Georgian defector who claims to have heard the inside story from sources close to Stalin and Beria (both Georgians), debunks the idea of a Nazi plot. In order to impress Roosevelt and impose a feeling of indebtedness on him, writes Yuri Krotkov (a pseudonym), Stalin conceived a bogus assassination attempt and ordered Beria to set it up, with the provision that 'assassins' should actually be arrested..."

"Although the evidence remains insubstantial, it is not altogether impossible that the Nazis did plan an attack on the Allied leaders, perhaps even at the Tehran conference and even with only a week to prepare. It is completely impossible, however, that such a Nazi plan could have been the one that Stalin warned FDR about. If Stalin thought that Otto Skorzeny, who had whisked Mussolini off a mountain top as if he were a feather, were planning to assassinate him, or to try any action in Tehran, he would have postponed the conference and left. He would not have remained in the city even if the story that his own men were spreading were true, that a half-dozen assassins possibly capable of shelling the Soviet Embassy were in the vicinity. He was not a man to take such a risk."

Kern's entire article, "How 'Uncle Joe' Bugged FDR" is here, covering a lot more ground than Operation Long Jump.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

TR's 1901 Thanksgiving Proclamation

The Thanksgiving proclamations of George Washington (November 26, 1789) and Abraham Lincoln (November 26, 1863) are usually noted in any serious discussion of the American holiday, as well they should be. But every president since Lincoln has issued annual Thanksgiving Day proclamations, both before and after the 1941 law fixing the day as a federal holiday.

Theodore Roosevelt had a particularly delicate task in 1901, proclaiming a day of thanksgiving despite the recent violent murder of the popular William McKinley. This is how he handled it in a proclamation dated November 2, 1901:

"This Thanksgiving finds the people still bowed with sorrow for the death of a great and good President. We mourn President McKinley because we so loved and honored him; and the manner of his death should awaken in the breasts of our people a keen anxiety for the country, and at the same time a resolute purpose not to be driven by any calamity from the path of strong, orderly, popular liberty which as a nation we have thus far safely trod.

"Yet in spite of this great disaster, it is nevertheless true that no people on earth have such abundant cause for thanksgiving as we have. The past year in particular has been one of peace and plenty. We have prospered in things material and have been able to work for our own uplifting in things intellectual and spiritual. Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us; and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips and shows itself in deeds. We can best prove our thankfulness to the Almighty by the way in which on this earth and at this time each of us does his duty to his fellow men.

"Now, Therefore, I, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, do hereby designate as a day of general thanksgiving Thursday, the 28th of this present November, and do recommend that throughout the land the people cease from their wonted occupations, and at their several homes and places of worship reverently thank the Giver of all good for the countless blessings of our national life."

As it happened, more than 60 years later the last presidential proclamation issued by John Kennedy was his 1963 Thanksgiving proclamation, dated November 5, for a holiday that took place six days after his death.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Regards for Thanksgiving. Dead Presidents Daily will return on Sunday.

For a few years during the late 1930s and early '40s, Americans had the choice of celebrating Thanksgiving on either the third Thursday or the last Thursday of November, but it wasn't a choice that they particularly wanted. Rather, it was the result of a misstep by the Roosevelt administration.

"In 1939, FDR decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week," wrote Melanie Kirkpatrick in the November 24, 2009, edition of the Wall Street Journal. "Rather than take place on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, he decreed that the annual holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier."

The last Thursday of November happened to be the 30th in 1939, and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins had advised the president that the switch to the 23rd would add a week to the Christmas shopping season, presumably boosting sales. The announcement was made in August and it didn't sit well at all, despite FDR's reasoning that Thanksgiving had only been the last Thursday in November since the time of the Lincoln administration, not even 80 years earlier. Moreover, Congress had never designated the day -- successive presidents always had.

"Public sentiment ran heavily against Roosevelt's plan," continued Kirkpatrick "Ten days after the president's announcement, Gallup published the results of a national poll finding that 62 percent of Americans surveyed disapproved of the date change. By the time November arrived, the 48 states were nearly evenly divided. Twenty-three decided to stick with the old Thanksgiving, and 22 decided to adopt FDR's date. Texas, Mississippi and Colorado said they would celebrate on both days.

"It wasn't long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the "Republican Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 as the 'Democratic Thanksgiving' or 'Franksgiving.' "

This state of affairs persisted until 1941. By then, the government had reported that most retailers didn't see increased sales from the longer holiday shopping season, and the president acknowledged that the "experiment" with the earlier Thanksgiving hadn't worked. Beginning in 1942, he said, Thanksgiving would revert to the customary last Thursday of November.

Curiously, the fracas had a permanent impact on the date of Thanksgiving in the United States. After FDR relented, Congress took up the matter and in a joint resolution passed by both houses that the president signed on December 26, 1941, the holiday was fixed as the fourth Thursday of November, not the last one. Often these are one in the same, but not every year. This year, for example, they are the same, but in 2013 there will be a fifth Thursday in November, the 29th. It will not be Thanksgiving.

For a few years after 1942, some states clung to the last Thursday, but since the mid-50s, the fourth Thursday has been the universally accepted date for Thanksgiving in the United States, and it's unlikely any president will ever be able to, or would even want to change that.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Kennedy Assassination, As Told on TV

November 22 is one of the four presidential assassination anniversaries -- the others are April 14, July 2 and September 6 -- and the only one still in living memory, as it will be for a few more decades. That day in 1963 was also the only time that a president was shot and killed on the same day; Lincoln died the next day, while Garfield and McKinley lingered considerably longer.

Word of Lincoln, Garfield and even McKinley's assassination traveled by telegraph, and from there into print, but by the time Kennedy died, new media had arisen to spread the awful news.

CBS coverage.

NBC coverage.

ABC coverage.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Bixby Letter

This is the text of the famed "Bixby Letter," sent to one Lydia Bixby of Boston:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

It's the best of Victorian sentiment without an excess of verbal ornamentation that era was also known for, and has been acclaimed as a Lincoln masterpiece. But did he or his secretary John Hay (pictured) actually write it? This argument as been going on for some years, and each side has its partisans. There's no dispute that such a letter was sent from the White House to a Mrs. Bixby, but the writing itself could plausibly be the work of either Lincoln or Hay.

Another thing: It's fairly clear that Mrs. Bixby did not, in fact, lose five sons, but two of five. A sad loss, certainly, but not quite the decimation described in the letter.

As Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame put it in the Spring 1999 volume of the Abraham Lincoln Association newsletter: "Although extravagant praise has been lavished on this document, it is surrounded by ironies. Mrs. Bixby was deemed 'the best specimen of a true-hearted Union' ever seen, yet she was in fact a Confederate sympathizer who ran a whorehouse. In addition, Mrs. Bixby lied about her sons; despite her claim that five of them had been killed, she had really lost only two boys in the war."

In Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past, author Joe Nickell is a little more sympathetic to Mrs. Bixby, whom he describes as a "nurse" and "widow," though he agrees that only two Bixby sons died for the Union (and two others deserted to the Confederacy). But Nickell says it isn't clear who gave Lincoln the erroneous information, Adjutant-General William Schouler, Bixby or someone else.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vice President Dawes on the Vice Presidency

Happy birthday to Joe Biden (Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.), 47th Vice President of the United States, and current holder of that not-always-well regarded office. He turns 69.

Back in 1935, former Vice President Charles G. Dawes published a book called Notes as Vice President, 1928-29, which was essentially a version of a diary he kept during the last year of his term. In as much as Dawes' vice presidency is remembered now, his rocky relationship with President Coolidge is usually mentioned. At one low point, the vice president missed being in the Senate to cast a tie-breaking vote in the administration's favor, infuriating the president.

In any case, Dawes puts the best face on the vice presidency in the first few paragraphs of the book. "My experiences in this office I have found far from uninteresting and unimportant," he wrote. "The superficial attitude of indifference which many public men assume toward the office of Vice President of the United States is easily explained. It is the office for which one cannot hope to be a candidate with sufficient prospects for success to justify the effort involved in a long campaign...

"The office is largely what the man it in makes it -- which applies to all public offices... For his prestige as a presiding officer, it is to his advantage that he neither votes nor speaks in the Senate Chamber. Outside the Senate Chamber, his position as Vice President gives him a hearing by the general public as wide as any Senator, other things being equal. If he lacks initiative, courage, or ideas, he of course will be submerged; but that is true also of a Senator or any other parliamentary member."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Presidential Relics

They might be dead, but that doesn't keep dead presidents from making money -- for purveyors of their relics, that is. On December 1, Dallas-based Heritage Auctions will be selling five architectural drawing tools once belonging to Thomas Jefferson, which the company says are expected to fetch $45,000 or more.

The pieces have been consigned by descendants of James Monroe. “The Monroe and Jefferson families were closely intertwined in Virginia society and politics, and the Monroes became the custodians of various items originally owned by Thomas Jefferson,” notes Tom Slater, director of historical auctions at Heritage, in a statement. “A number went to Monticello and other Virginia museums, but this choice grouping remained in private hands, which has afforded us this amazing opportunity to bring it to auction.”

Besides the Jefferson items, also for sale at the same time are the last rocking chair John F. Kennedy was known to have sat in; a pair of glass decanters owned by George Washington; a portrait cameo brooch of Zachary Taylor, owned by Taylor and consigned by a direct descendant; James Monroe's own ceramic meat platter in the "Landing of Lafayette" pattern, commemorating Lafayette's triumphal visit to America in 1824, while Monroe was president; and several china pieces belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln, which she sold to pay off debt after her husband's death.

Separately, the Raab Collection, a historic documents dealer in Philadelphia, is selling a reel-to-reel tape made aboard Air Force One the day John Kennedy was assassinated, which it says is more than 30 minutes longer than a version at the National Archives. The Raab Collection bought the tape from the estate of Army Gen. Chester "Ted" Clifton Jr., who served as the senior military aide to Kennedy, and now wants to sell it for $500,000.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Attacks on the White House

The Secret Service has arrested a man in connection with shots fired at the White House a few days ago. In this case, two bullets hit the executive mansion. But it was by no means the first time the residence of the president has been attacked.

The most famous -- and damaging -- attack was of course when a British force swept into town in 1814 and set fire to the recently completed presidential residence, among other public buildings. But there have been other, less destructive attacks during the two centuries since then.

In August 1841, President Tyler vetoed a bill to re-establish the Bank of the United States, inspiring a Whig riot outside the White House. The Whigs, ostensibly Tyler's own party, felt betrayed and, according to, "The rioters hurled stones at the White House, shot guns into the air and hung an effigy of the president that they then set on fire. The protest is considered one of, if not the most violent demonstration held near the White House. As a result of the unrest, the District of Columbia decided to create its own police force."

In two separate incidents in 1974, a U.S. Army private in a stolen helicopter landed on the White House grounds (and was arrested) and a man crashed his car through one of the White House gates, holding off police for a few hours by claiming to have explosives strapped to his body (he too was then arrested).

In 1984, a man waved a samurai sword outside the White House grounds, another one brandished a shotgun on the sidewalk outside the property -- and was shot to death for his trouble -- and yet another climbed the fence surrounding the property.

In 1994 -- for some reason -- all kinds of violence broke loose near the executive mansion: one Frank E. Corder stole a Cessna and crashed it on the White House lawn in an apparent suicide; Francisco M. Duran let loose rounds from a semiautomatic weapon, putting 11 holes in the White House facade; and four shots were fired at the rear of the building by an unknown shooter.

But that's not all. Though not attacks, strictly speaking, over the years other people have tried to sneak past the Secret Service guards and wander around the grounds, and crash official functions. The White House is a popular place.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nixon and Hiss

Alger Hiss died 15 years ago today at the age of 92. The question of whether Hiss spied for the Soviet Union is beyond the purview of Dead Presidents Daily -- for that, readers can look to the long shelf of books on the subject, sprawling web sites, countless articles, documentaries and other materials.

There is no dispute that the case allowed a previously obscure California Congressman, Richard Nixon, to make a name for himself by nailing Hiss -- if not for espionage, at least in the court of public opinion in the late 1940s. (Hiss ultimately went to prison for lying to Congress, not spying.)

As American Experience put it: "Hiss denied that he had ever met Chambers [a Communist who accused Hiss of being a spy]. Nixon, however, suspected otherwise. He dissuaded other members [of the House Committee on Un-American Activities] from dropping the case. Then, by questioning Chambers about Hiss's personal life, he determined that the two men must have met before.

"On August 17, 1948, Nixon brought Hiss to the witness stand. Under a stinging cross-examination, Hiss admitted that he had known Chambers, albeit under the name George Crosely. Hiss continued to deny being a spy. In November, Chambers suddenly produced copies of State Department documents typed on Hiss' typewriter. Hiss was indicted for perjury and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. Nixon, who shared the media limelight with Chambers, became an instant celebrity..."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Documents from Lincoln's Illinois Militia Service Discovered

The Illinois National Guard reports that "previously unknown Black Hawk War documents written and signed by Capt. Abraham Lincoln while on duty in 1832, and an affidavit signed by Lincoln in 1855, have recently been discovered at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and their authenticity confirmed by researchers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill."

Lincoln is one of 19 presidents to serve in a state national guard (or as it would have been called in his time, state militia). Lincoln enrolled in 1832 on the occasion of a number of clashes known to history as the Black Hawk War. He was elected captain in the 31st Regiment of Militia of Sangamon County, 1st Division and in command of the 4th Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, a rifle company. Lincoln and his men saw no combat, though they arrived at the site of the Battle of Stillman's Run in present-day Ogle County, Illinois, not long after that battle, and helped bury the dead.

Later, Lincoln (as his wont) joked about this time in the militia: "I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from the loss of blood."

The Illinois National Guard explains that "private researcher Anne Musella recently brought a previously discovered Certificate of Discharge signed by Lincoln to the attention of Papers of Abraham Lincoln staff who are working at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington. That led Assistant Editor David Gerleman to delve further in the Bounty Land Warrant files at the National Archives, where he found two more Certificates of Discharge written and signed by Lincoln.

"Together with other documents previously discovered, it appears that Lincoln, like other officers, filled out and signed dozens of these Certificates of Discharge. Given to soldiers as they mustered out to return home, the veterans later submitted these documents as proof of service when they claimed the bounty lands allotted to them by Congress. The certificates located at the National Archives more than double the number of surviving discharge certificates written and signed by Captain Abraham Lincoln, and likely others still await discovery."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Item Stolen From Lincoln's Tomb

Thieves have desecrated the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, according to a report by the Springfield Journal-Register over the weekend.

"Not even Lincoln’s Tomb is immune to the spree of copper thefts that have hit the Springfield area," wrote Jason Nevel. "A copper sword brandished by a statue of a Civil War artillery officer atop the tomb was stolen sometime between September and early November."

It was the first time in more than 100 years that anything had been stolen from the site, according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. In fact, in 1910 the same sword was stolen, though that would have been a bronze item, rather than a copper one.

Back in 1870s, a impromptu gang of criminals plotted not merely to steal an item from Lincoln's grave site (the fancy monument hadn't been built yet), but to steal the body itself and hold it for ransom. They failed, but ultimately the fear of a repeat attempt inspired Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's only surviving son, to have the body reburied in a steel cage under several tons of concrete in 1901.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eisenhower Dedicates the Marine Corps Memorial

On November 10, 1954, President Eisenhower dedicated of the Marine Corps Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery, depicting the iconic photo of the February 23, 1945 flag-raising on Iwo Jima, is dedicated to all U.S. Marines who have given their lives for their country.

"Erection of the memorial, designed by Horace W. Peaslee, began in September 1954," says "On the 179th Birthday of the Marine Corps, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the statue before a large crowd assembled at the site bordering the northern end of Arlington National Cemetery. Those attending the dedication included members of 'The President's Own' United States Marine Band; Vice President Richard M. Nixon; the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr.; Felix de Weldon; Joe Rosenthal; military personnel; Marine veterans; and friends of the Corps. "

A non-sound film of some of the proceedings that day is here.

The inscription on the based reads: "In honor and in memory of men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775." On the opposite side this is: "Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue," which is what Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said of the Americans who fought on Iwo Jima.

In June 1961, President John Kennedy directed that the U.S. flag should fly from the memorial 24 hours a day.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Day After the 1960 Election

After presidential elections come concession speeches from the losers and the victory speeches from the winners -- usually. In the case of a particularly close election still within living memory, 1960, things weren't quite so simple. By the end of election day that year, no one was sure yet who had won. Early in the morning on November 9, Vice President Richard Nixon spoke to his supporters but did not concede, though he did note that things weren't trending his way.

Writing in 1960: LBJ vs. JKF vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies, David Pietrusza takes the story from there: "At 9:45 a.m. PST Herb Klein -- not Richard Nixon -- stood before the cameras to announce that the great chase had ended, just as he -- not Richard Nixon -- had so casually announced it had begun ten months earlier...

"Klein read Richard Nixon's terse concession -- a telegram Nixon had already sent to Kennedy: 'I want to repeat through this wire congratulations and the best wishes I extended to you on television last night. I know that you will have the united support of all Americans as you lead the nation in the cause of peace and freedom in the next four years.' "

Kennedy gave his victory speech on television that day at the Hyannis Armory, mentioning Nixon's telegram as well as one from President Eisenhower.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Curse of Tecumseh

On the day after the Battle of Tippecanoe, November 8, 1811, Gov. William Henry Harrison and the men under his command burned Prophet's Town, the base from which the Indians had attacked the day before, inspired into action by their spiritual leader, Tenskwatawa ("The Prophet"). After losing the battle, the Indians had scattered, and the Prophet was discredited. Less than two years later, Harrison defeated the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames -- which resulted in the death of the Prophet's brother, Tecumseh.

Was that the end of it? Not if you put stock in a fanciful explanation for the deaths in office of the presidents who were elected in a year ending in zero from 1840 (starting with Harrison) to 1960 (John Kennedy). "Those who look to make sense of eerie coincidences have come up with an explanation to account for this string of deaths: an ancient Indian curse, supposedly administered by Tecumseh himself..." says Snopes in "The Curse of Tecumseh."

"Another version attributes the curse to Tenskwatawa... 'Harrison will die I tell you,' the Prophet reportedly said. 'And after him, every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of my people.' "

It turns out that there's no record of either Tenskwatawa or Tecumseh ever saying such a thing. In fact, the story has all the hallmarks of a retroactive invention, once people noticed that a number of zero-year presidents had died in office. Moreover, no zero-year president has died in office in almost 50 years, which would seem to argue for "eerie coincidence."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Battle of Tippecanoe Bicentennial

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Tippecanoe, which occurred in the Indiana Territory and pitted U.S. Army regulars, militia, and volunteers under the command of Gov. William Henry Harrison, who would briefly be Ninth President of the United States nearly 30 years later, against Indians following the leadership of Tenskwatawa, also known as the Prophet, brother of the famed Tecumseh.

"The white settlers of the Indiana Territory were disturbed by the increasing activities and power of Tecumseh's followers," notes the Tippecanoe County Historical Association. "In the late summer of 1811, the governor of the territory, Gen. William Henry Harrison, organized a small army of 1,000 men, hoping to destroy [Prophet's Town, which had been founded by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa] while Tecumseh was on a southern recruitment drive. The regiment arrived on November 6, 1811, and upon meeting with representatives of the Prophet, it was mutually agreed that there would be no hostilities until a meeting could be held on the following day. Harrison's scouts then guided the troops to a suitable campsite on a wooded hill about a mile west of Prophet's Town.

"Upon arriving at the site, Harrison warned his men of the possible treachery of the Prophet. The troops were placed in a quadrangular formation; each man was to sleep fully clothed. Fires were lit to combat the cold, rainy night, and a large detail was assigned to sentinel the outposts.

"Although Tecumseh had warned his brother not to attack the white men until the confederation was strong and completely unified, the incensed Prophet lashed his men with fiery oratory. Claiming the white man's bullets could not harm them, the Prophet led his men near the army campsite. From a high rock ledge west of the camp, he gave an order to attack just before daybreak on the following day.

"The sentinels were ready, and the first gunshot was fired when the yells of the warriors were heard. Many of the men awoke to find the Indians upon them. Although only a handful of the soldiers had had previous battle experience, the army bloodily fought off the reckless, determined Indian attack. Two hours later, thirty-seven soldiers were dead, twenty-five others were to die of injuries, and over 126 were wounded. The Indian casualties were unknown, but their spirit was crushed. Angered by his deceit, the weary warriors stripped the Prophet of his power and threatened to kill him.

"The demoralized Indians left Prophet's Town, abandoning most of their food and belongings. When Harrison's men arrived at the village on November 8, they found only an elderly Indian woman, whom they left with a wounded chief found not far from the battlefield. After burning the town, the army began their painful return to Vincennes."

Tenskwatawa survived, finally dying in 1836, and never again enjoyed the kind of following he had in 1811. Tecumseh died in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames in Canada, an engagement in the War of 1812, fighting soldiers under the command of William Henry Harrison. Richard Mentor Johnson, Ninth Vice President of the United States, also participated in that battle.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The November 6 Elections, Especially 1860

Six dead presidents have been elected or re-elected on November 6 -- and no living ones, the most recent November 6 election being 1984, when the late President Reagan prevailed over former Vice President Walter Mondale in a very big way. There will be a "November 6 president" after November 6, 2012, however.

Other presidents elected on November 6 include Lincoln, Cleveland (first term), McKinley, Hoover, and Eisenhower. The election of 1900, which saw McKinley-Roosevelt win handily over Bryan-Stevenson, would have been a November 5 election, except for the fact that 1900 was not a leap year. In the Gregorian calendar, all years divisible by four are leap years except for years divisible by 100 -- such as 1800, 1900 -- that aren't themselves divisible by 400 -- such as 1600, 2000.

The election of 1860 was clearly the most momentous of the November 6 elections -- of any U.S. presidential election, it is easy to argue.

As Susan Schulten wrote in the New York Times, "Abraham Lincoln won a decisive victory on Nov. 6, 1860, with more than double the Electoral College votes of John C. Breckinridge, the runner-up. The election also sparked a crisis where 11 Southern states left the union, formed a new country and fell into a disastrous war with the North, all within six months of Lincoln’s win."

Thursday, November 03, 2011

November 3 Elections

Five dead presidents (and one living one) were elected or re-elected to the office on November 3: Grant, McKinley, Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson (and Clinton).

In 1868, the Republican ticket of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Schulyer Colfax prevailed over the Democratic ticket of Horatio Seymour and Francis Preston Blair.

The Republicans received 52.7 percent of the popular vote and 214 electoral votes, while the Democrats received 47.3 percent of the popular vote and 80 electoral votes.

In 1896, the Republicans again took the prize, with William McKinley and Garret Hobart outpolling Democrats William Jennings Bryan and Arthur Sewall, despite Bryan's impassioned oratory, mostly famously the Cross of Gold speech.

McKinley-Hobart took 51.1 percent of the popular vote and 271 electoral votes, versus 45.8 percent and 176 for Bryan-Sewall. Bryan, nicknamed "the Great Commoner," did however invent the national stump tour in this election, traveling about 18,000 miles in the months before voting day.

In 1908, William Jennings Bryan lost again (his third and final defeat), with John W. Kern as his running mate. The victors were the Republicans William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman.

This time around, Bryan captured 43 percent of the popular vote and 162 electoral votes; Taft got 51.6 percent of the popular votes and 321 electoral votes.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner crushed Republican challengers Alf Landon and Frank Knox, with the Democrats winning 60.8 percent of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes. The Republicans took 36.5 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes, those of Maine and Vermont. Landon, incidentally, long outlived everyone else running in '36, finally passing away at the age of 100 in 1987, though Garner lived almost to 99 years of age, dying in 1967. Knox, later FDR's Secretary of the Navy, died in '44 and FDR himself died in '45.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were also the beneficiaries of a Democratic landslide, collecting 61.1 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes, versus Barry Goldwater and William E. Miller's 38.5 percent and 52 electoral votes.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Polk, Harding & November 2 Elections

November 2 is the birthday of James Knox Polk, 11th President of the United States, who was the first of ten children born Samuel and Jane Knox Polk. The future president was born in 1795 on his family farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, though he came to manhood in Tennessee and entered politics in that state as a protégé of Andrew Jackson. Among other distinctions, he was the first president born in North Carolina and the first president whose mother survived him.

November 2 is also the birthday of Warren Gamaliel Harding, 29th President of the United States, who was the first of eight children of George Tyron and Elizabeth Dickerson Harding and named for great-uncle the Rev. Warren Gamaliel Bancroft. The future president was born in 1865 in Corisa, Ohio (now Blooming Grove), and came of age in Ohio and became the most recent president from that state -- the seventh born there and the sixth elected to presidency while a resident of Ohio. He was the first and only newspaper publisher elected president and the first president whose father survived him.

On November 2, 1852, Franklin Pierce and William R. King, Democrats, prevailed in the 17th presidential election over Winfield Scott and William Alexander Graham, Whigs. The Democrats won 254 electoral votes, while the Whigs got 42. Their shares of the popular vote were 50.8 percent and 43.9 percent, respectively. It was the death knell for the Whig Party. Minor parties in the race included the Free Soil Party, the Liberty Party, the Union Party and the Southern Rights Party.

On November 2, 1880, James A. Garfield and Chester Alan Arthur, Republicans, bested Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, Democrats, in the 24th presidential election. The Republicans polled 48.3 percent of the popular vote, compared with 48.2 percent for the Democrats -- a difference of only about 2,000 out of nearly 9 million cast -- and took the electoral college 214 to 155. The Greenback Party, Prohibition Party and the American Party also fielded candidates for president that year.

On November 2, 1920, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Republicans, won the 34th presidential election over James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats. Harding-Coolidge took 60.3 percent of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes, while Cox-Roosevelt took 34.1 percent of the popular vote and 127 electoral votes. The Socialist Party nominated Eugene V. Debs, who was in prison at the time, and he received 3.4 percent of the popular vote -- the highest ever for a Socialist. The Farmer-Labor, Prohibition, Socialist Labor, Single-Tax and American parties also fielded candidates.

On November 2, 1948, Harry S. Truman and Alben W. Barkley, Democrats, upset Thomas E. Dewey and Earl Warren, Republicans, in the 41st presidential election, capturing 49.6 percent of the popular vote and 303 electoral votes, compared with 45.1 percent of the popular vote and 189 electoral votes. The States' Rights Democratic Party, which nominated Strom Thurmond for president, took 2.4 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes; the Progressive/American Labor Parties, whose nominee was former Vice President Henry Wallace, also took 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. The Socialist Party and the Prohibition Party also fielded candidates.

On November 2, 1976, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Democrats, won the 48th presidential election, beating Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, Republicans. Carter-Mondale took 50.1 percent of the popular vote and 297 electoral votes, while Ford-Dole captured 48 percent of the popular vote and 240 electoral votes. A number of other parties fielded candidates, such as the Libertarians, Socialists, Communists, People's and U.S. Labor.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Dead Presidents: November

In 1845, Congress fixed the date of the presidential election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and every president has been elected in early November since Zachary Taylor took the prize on November 7, 1848 -- though of course in some cases, the results weren't known on election day.

Since the election of 1848, among the presidents who are no longer alive, four were elected or re-elected on November 2; five on November 3; five on November 4; four on November 5; six on November 6; five on November 7; and five on November 8. Among the living presidents, Jimmy Carter was elected November 2; George H.W. Bush on November 8; Bill Clinton on November 3 and 5; George W. Bush on November 7 and 2; and Barack Obama on November 4.

Also in November: presidential birthdays for Polk (1795) and Harding (1865) on the same day -- tomorrow -- and Taylor (1784), Pierce (1804) and Garfield (1831). Arthur (1886) and Kennedy (1963) are the only presidents to die in November.