Tuesday, January 31, 2012

John Tyler's (Living) Grandsons

Making the rounds of dead-president news currently is the (seemingly) startling news that John Tyler, 10th President of the United States, who was born in 1790, has two living grandsons here in the early 21st century. The story broke at the web site Mental Floss and other sites soon picked it up.

New York magazine not merely repeated the story, but bothered to interview Harrison Tyler, one of the grandsons. Not only is he still alive at 83, he lives at the Sherwood Forest Plantation in Virginia -- home of the president from 1842 to his death in 1862. The other grandson, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, lives in Tennessee.

For the record, Harrison and Lyon are the sons of Lyon Gardiner Tyler (August 24, 1853--February 12, 1935), who was the fifth child of John Tyler and his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. The elder Lyon was born when his father was 63; Harrison and Lyon were born when their father was in his 70s. This full interview is here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Jackson Thrashes His Would-Be Assassin

Today is President Franklin Roosevelt's birthday. The New Deal and WWII president would have been 130. One hundred years ago today, the young patrician Roosevelt was holding his first elective office, that of state senator from Duchess County, NY.

Today is also the anniversary of an attempt on the life of President Andrew Jackson in 1835, at the U.S. Capitol. It was the first known attempt on the life of a president in office, though not of course the first attempt on Andrew Jackson's life -- the man had been in a few duels and other scrapes, after all. By 1835, he was 67 and still carried a bullet near his heart put there by Charles Dickinson, whom Jackson then killed in the duel.

People experienced their mental illness unmedicated in the 19th century, and so it was with Richard Lawrence, a house painter by profession who was variously reported to believe that Jackson was personally responsible for his unemployment, and that he (Lawrence) was British royalty. Lawrence approached the president and pointed a pistol at him from about six feet away. It misfired. So did a second pistol.

This was also the pre-Secret Service age, so President Jackson (characteristically) was one of those who helped subdue Lawrence, supposedly giving him a sound thrashing with his cane. The president lived on until 1845, finally dying of old age; Lawrence spent the rest of his life in lunatic asylums, dying in 1861.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Plan to Reanimate Washington

News of the weird, presidential variety: A website called io9 ("We Come From the Future") recently published an article called "The Capitol architect wanted to reanimate George Washington's dead body," along with a George-Washington-as-zombie illustration that says more about the current penchant for zombies than the 18th-century statesman. Naturally, zombie George Washington prints are for sale by Plemont Studios, the image's creator; and a movie treatment can't be long in coming, especially if Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter does well.

The io9 article cites Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, by Holly Tucker (2011) as the source for the story. "If William Thornton [pictured], physician and designer of the US Capitol, had had his way, Washington's body would have been subjected a scientific experiment designed to bring the deceased former president back to life," writes Lauren Davis. "... he planned to perform a tracheotomy so he could insert a bellows into Washington's throat and pump his lungs full of air, and finally to give Washington an infusion of lamb's blood. Friends and family declined Thornton's mad scientist offer..."

Lamb's blood, apparently, was thought at the time to have regenerative properties -- or at Thornton wanted to investigate the possibility, good Enlightenment scientist that he was. He probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, since medical science was primitive at the time, and at least he wanted to investigate new avenues of research, however strange they might sound to us.

A couple of other outlets have picked up the story, including the Daily Mail, which in true British tabloid style called its article, "Zombie George Washington: How a mad scientist planned to reanimate the first president with lamb's blood after he died."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ronald Reagan's State of the Union Joke

Ronald Reagan, well known for his talents as a raconteur, included a touch of humor at the beginning of his first state of the union address, which he delivered on January 26, 1982.

“Today marks my first State of the Union address to you, a constitutional duty as old as our Republic itself.

“President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the nation that the destiny of self-government and the ‘preservation of the sacred fire of liberty’ is ‘finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.’ For our friends in the press, who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say: I did not actually hear George Washington say that.
[Laughter] But it is a matter of historic record.”[Laughter]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Monroe Doctrine: Slipped Into the President's Annual Message

The famed Monroe Doctrine got its beginning as a few paragraphs in the seventh annual message to Congress delivered -- in writing -- by President James Monroe. His Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, is universally acknowledged as the one who actually formulated the doctrine. In nondiplomatic terms, the doctrine says, "Hands off Latin America, powers of Europe! (Especially you, Spain)."

Of course diplomatic language was used, which JQA, son of a president and soon-to-be president, excelled at. The money quote from President Monroe's annual message to Congress -- we would now call it a State of the Union address, dated December 2, 1823 -- is as follows:

"We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere.

But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

Because the United States had a weak navy at the time, European powers generally ignored the doctrine during the 19th century -- and yet the Spanish and other powers didn't often try to colonize or recolonize Latin America, because it became part of the British Empire's informal sphere. What the U.S. Navy couldn't do (until the time of TR), the Royal Navy did, with the unintended consequence of enforcing the Monroe Doctrine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Four Freedoms

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union, which included what would be known as the Four Freedoms, making it one of the best-known in the long line of State of the Union addresses.

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

"The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

"The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

"The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear -- which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

The complete speech is here, transcribed and on audio.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The State of the Union Address

Tomorrow marks the latest of more than 200 State of the Union addresses given by a U.S. president. The custom has its origin in Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which says, "[The president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

Though the term "State of the Union" is used in the Constitution, it wasn't widely used to describe the president's annual address until Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, and not universally used until Harry Truman was in office. Earlier, the document was simply the President's Annual Message to Congress. Note also that the Constitution is vague about timing, saying nothing about an "annual" message. Still, custom has established an annual timetable.

Moreover, George Washington and John Adams delivered the addresses themselves, but Thomas Jefferson started sending written messages to Congress, as all of his successors did until Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of giving the annual report to Congress as a speech once more. Maybe his professorial leanings led to the change. Since Wilson's time most, but not all, of the State of the Union addresses have been delivered orally. The last president to send a written message was Jimmy Carter, during the waning days of his administration in January 1981.

The first paragraph of the First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union, delivered by President Washington on January 8, 1790, went as follows:

"Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs. The recent accession of the important state of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States (of which official information has been received), the rising credit and respectability of our country, the general and increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed are circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lyndon Johnson Dies

On this day in 1973, only about a month after the passing of Harry Truman, and only two days after the second inauguration of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, died suddenly at his ranch in central Texas.

A very young LBJ is pictured here.

A much older LBJ is pictured here -- the year before his death, and sporting a hairstyle not usually associated with the '60s president.

"He could take a bite out of you bigger than a T-bone steak and the very next day he would put his arms around you like a long-lost brother." -- Hubert Humphrey

"He is a master of the art of the possible in politics." -- Adlai Stevenson

"You know when I first thought I might have a chance? When I realized that you could go into any bar in the country and insult Lyndon Johnson and nobody would punch you in the nose." -- Eugene McCarthy

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Inauguration Firsts

First presidential inauguration: George Washington, April 30, 1789, later than March 4 because of the time it took for the First Congress to assembly in the temporary capital, New York City.

First time the Chief Justice of the United States gave the oath of office to the incoming president: John Adams, March 4, 1797.

First president to be inaugurated in Washington City (the District of Columbia): Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801.

First time the United States Marine Band played for an inaugural ball: that of James Madison, March 4, 1809.

First president inaugurated wearing long trousers instead of knee breeches: John Quincy Adams, March 4, 1824. Such fashion belonged to his father's generation. JQA is also the first president to not wear a powdered wig for formal occasions.

First president to be sworn in on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol: Andrew Jackson, March 4, 1829. The move allowed more members of the public to attend, as befitting a president who had run as the champion of the common man. Previously, the ceremonies were held in the House or Senate chambers (except for Washington, on a balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street, and Monroe in 1817, in front of the temporary capitol, because the U.S. Capitol had been destroyed in 1814 and was still being rebuilt).

First president-elect to arrive in Washington City for his inauguration by railroad: William Henry Harrison in 1841, for all the good it did him.

First inauguration thought to be photographed: that of James Buchanan, March 4, 1857.

First president to review an inaugural parade: James Garfield, March 4, 1881.

First inauguration recorded by a motion picture camera: that of William McKinley, March 4, 1897.

First president to use an automobile to arrive and depart from his inauguration: Warren G. Harding, March 4, 1921.

First inauguration broadcast on the radio: that of Calvin Coolidge, March 4, 1925.

First January 20th inauguration: for the second term of Franklin Roosevelt, 1937.

First televised inauguration: that of Harry Truman, January 20, 1949.

First time a poet participated in the inaugural program: at the ceremony for John Kennedy, January 20, 1961. Robert Frost, 86, read "The Gift Outright" by memory, when he was unable to read the poem he had written for the occasion, "Dedication."

First president to be sworn in on the west side of the U.S. Capitol: Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nixon Quotes MacLeish

On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, taking his oath of office from Chief Justice Earl Warren at the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. Toward the end of his inaugural address, Nixon quoted poet and librarian Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) regarding the flight of Apollo 8, only a month earlier.

"Only a few short weeks ago, we shared the glory of man's first sight of the world as God sees it, as a single sphere reflecting light in the darkness.

"As the Apollo astronauts flew over the Moon's gray surface on Christmas Eve, they spoke to us of the beauty of Earth -- and in that voice so clear across the lunar distance, we heard them invoke God's blessing on its goodness.

"In that moment, their view from the Moon moved poet Archibald MacLeish to write:'To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers.'

"In that moment of surpassing technological triumph, men turned their thoughts toward home and humanity -- seeing in that far perspective that man's destiny on Earth is not divisible; telling us that however far we reach into the cosmos, our destiny lies not in the stars but on Earth itself, in our own hands, in our own hearts.

"We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kennedy's Inaugural Address

John Kennedy uttered a number of memorable phrases in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961: "pay any price, bear any burden," "a long twilight struggle" and of course "ask not what your country can do for you..."

The speech was more than just a string of memorable sound bites, however. As a work of rhetoric, it's rightly considered a soaring masterpiece, one of the best of the presidential inaugurals (though none will likely ever best Lincoln's Second Inaugural). And, at about 14 minutes, worth listening to in its entirety from time to time.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Eisenhower's First Inaugural Address

On January 20, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office as the 34th President of the United States from Chief Justice Frederick Vinson. The ceremony not only marked a change of presidents, but the recovery of the office by the Republican Party after Herbert Hoover had lost his re-election bid 20 years earlier.

Without naming names -- Stalin would be dead in less than two months, but no one knew that yet -- Eisenhower asserted that the United States had the lead role in a new geopolitical reality: the Cold War.

"How far have we come in man's long pilgrimage from darkness toward light? Are we nearing the light — a day of freedom and of peace for all mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in upon us?

"Great as are the preoccupations absorbing us at home, concerned as we are with matters that deeply affect our livelihood today and our vision of the future, each of these domestic problems is dwarfed by, and often even created by, this question that involves all humankind.

"This trial comes at a moment when man's power to achieve good or to inflict evil surpasses the brightest hopes and the sharpest fears of all ages. We can turn rivers in their courses, level mountains to the plains. Oceans and land and sky are avenues for our colossal commerce. Disease diminishes and life lengthens.

"Yet the promise of this life is imperiled by the very genius that has made it possible. Nations amass wealth. Labor sweats to create — and turns out devices to level not only mountains but also cities. Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet.

"At such a time in history, we who are free must proclaim anew our faith. This faith is the abiding creed of our fathers. It is our faith in the deathless dignity of man, governed by eternal moral and natural laws...

"The enemies of this faith know no god but force, no devotion but its use. They tutor men in treason. They feed upon the hunger of others. Whatever defies them, they torture, especially the truth.

"Here, then, is joined no argument between slightly differing philosophies. This conflict strikes directly at the faith of our fathers and the lives of our sons. No principle or treasure that we hold, from the spiritual knowledge of our free schools and churches to the creative magic of free labor and capital, nothing lies safely beyond the reach of this struggle.

"Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

FDR's Second Inaugural Address

Because of the 20th amendment to the Constitution, in 1937 Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to take the oath of office in January, which has been the case for his successors since then. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 1937.

The election of 1936 had been a landslide victory for the president. In his second inaugural address, FDR reminded the nation that much had improved since his first inauguration in 1933, but much had not, and asserted that it was the obligation of progressive government to do something about the nation's ongoing problems.

"In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

"I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

"I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

"I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

"I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

"It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope -- because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

William Polk Carey

Real estate businessman and philanthropist William Polk Carey died in early January, aged 81. Among many other things, Carey was a pioneer of the sale-leaseback financing structure, which involves a property owner selling real estate assets to investors and then occupying the same property under a long-term lease. The arrangement works well in most cases: the seller capitalizes its real estate, allowing it to do something else with the money, while the investors get a steady, locked-in rate of return from the property.

Currently W.P. Carey & Co. oversees a worldwide investment portfolio of about $12 billion. The company's investments through the sale lease-back structure are highly diversified, comprising contractual agreements with about 288 long-term corporate tenants spanning 28 industries and 18 countries.

Carey was also renowned for his generous support of higher education thorough the W.P. Carey Foundation. His beneficiaries included the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, and Arizona State University. He also gave millions to private schools in Baltimore.

Carey was not, however, a direct (lineal) descendant of James K. Polk, 11th President of United States, as was reported in a number of news stories recently. President Polk had no children. That Carey was a relative of the president's -- as well as Gen. Leonidas Polk, CSA -- there is no doubt. The Polk clan was quite extensive; the president's immediate family alone included ten brothers and sisters, all of whom (remarkably) survived childhood.

William Polk Carey was well aware of his connection to President Polk. According to the New York Times -- which merely uses the term "descendant," which might include collateral descent -- "Mr. Carey’s middle name, Polk, is an acknowledgment that he was a descendant of the 11th president of the United States, James K. Polk.

" 'He was very proud of that,' Mr. Carey’s great-nephew, William Polk Carey II, said last week. 'He liked to hand out those $1 gold coins with engravings of his Uncle Jim. That’s what he called him.' ”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nixon and the Space Shuttle

In early January 1972, at the beginning of the last year of the Apollo program, President Nixon gave his go-ahead for a new U.S. manned space craft: the Space Shuttle. Whether you consider it a white elephant or useful tool for getting into orbit, the Space Shuttle was Nixon's baby. The following is from the statement he released on that occasion:

I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and '90s.

This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people...

The new system will differ radically from all existing booster systems, in that most of this new system will be recovered and used again and again -- up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down as low as one-tenth of those present launch vehicles... Preparation is now sufficient for us to commence the actual work of construction with full confidence of success. In order to minimize technical and economic risks, the space agency will continue to take a cautious evolutionary approach in the development of this new system. Even so, by moving ahead at this time, we can have the Shuttle in manned flight by 1978, and operational a short time later...

'We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it', said Oliver Wendell Holmes, 'but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor'. So with man's epic voyage into space -- a voyage the United States of America has led and still shall lead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Citizens of the Granite State Are Not Easily Won

"Eisenhower, Taft, Stassen, Warren, MacArthur, Truman, Kefauver -- it's a free country, and no armed guards to restrict your personal opinion."

So said the voice of a newsreel covering the first modern New Hampshire primary in 1952, in an unspoken comparison to Soviet Russia. As it happened, Eisenhower won the Republican primary and went on to win the presidency, while Estes Kefauver bested Harry Truman in the Democratic primary, though Kefauver didn't win the nomination (and neither did Truman, who chose retirement soon after New Hampshire). Kefauver won again in 1956, since New Hampshire clearly liked the Senator from Tennessee, and that year he was the vice presidential nominee.

"New Hampshire has spoken, and experts are looking for more straws in the political wind."

Monday, January 09, 2012

Richard Nixon's Birthday

Richard Milhous Nixon, son of Francis Nixon and Hannah Milhous, would have been 99 today.

He will be remembered for many reasons, but also has one distinction among the men who have been president (besides the matter of quitting the job): He is the only person in U.S. history to have been elected both vice president and president twice: 1952, 1956, 1968 and 1972.

"I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, 'What party is he?' My friend said, 'He's a Republican.' I said, 'Then I am a Republican!'”

-- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

“Nixon is a shifty-eyed goddamn liar... He's one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides.”

-- President Harry Truman

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Fillmore Week Wrap

On Friday, January 6, 2012, Col. John Higgins, the Vice Commander of the New York Air National Guard's 107th Airlift Wing, laid a wreath at the grave of President Millard Fillmore at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. Col. Higgins acted on behalf of President Barak Obama, since it's now customary for presidential wreaths to be laid at the grave sites of each dead president on the anniversary of their birth. Fillmore, of course, is the first on the calendar.

President Nixon is next. According to The Orange County Register, Rear Adm. Mike Shatynski will represent President Obama at the ceremony at the Nixon Library on January 9, which would have been Nixon's 99th birthday. According to the paper, Edward Nixon, Richard's youngest brother (and now 91) will attend. He is the last of the Nixon siblings.

The University of Buffalo also does not forget Millard Fillmore, who was not only 13th President of the United States, but the first chancellor of that institution. At the same event as Col. Higgins' wreath-laying, A. Scott Weber, UB vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, delivered a memorial address at graveside. This year's commemoration marks the 47th consecutive year UB has organized the ceremony, which dates back to 1937. From 1937 until 1965, the anniversary ceremonies were staged by the city of Buffalo and the Buffalo Board of Education.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Adventures of John Fillmore

A Narrative of the Singular Sufferings of John Fillmore and Others on Board the Noted Pirate Vessel Commanded by Captain Phillips, "With an Account of their daring Enterprise, and happy Escape from the tyranny of the desperate Crew, by capturing their Vessel" is a 23-page, first hand-account by Fillmore of what happened after the dread pirate John Phillips pressed him into service on September 5, 1723, after capturing the fishing sloop he was aboard.

In the fullness of time, John Fillmore would be the great-grandfather of Millard Fillmore. Born in Ipswich, Mass., on March 18, 1702, John Fillmore was the first child of John and Abigail Fillmore and later referred to as the first known American-born Fillmore. He died in 1777, but as a young man barely survived his time with Captain Phillips.

"The pirate soon came up and sent a boat on board our sloop, demanding who we were, and where we were bound," Fillmore wrote of his first encounter with the pirate ship. "To which our Captain gave a direct answer. By this boat's crew we learned that the noted pirate, Captain Phillips, commanded their ship... Having often heard of the cruelties committed by that execrable pirate, made us dread to fall into his hands."

Phillips in fact let the sloop go -- but only after deciding that Fillmore would join his crew as a "good, stout, resolute fellow," forcing him to serve aboard the pirates' ship Revenge. "Those only who have been in similar circumstances can form any adequate idea of the distress I experienced at this time. If I obstinately refused to join the pirates, instant death stared me and my comrades in the face; if I consented to go with them, I expected to be massacred for refusing to sign the piratical articles, which I had fully determined never to do..."

Fillmore did not sign the articles, but was put at the helm of the ship anyway. Captain Phillips had promised to release Fillmore after two months, but of course did not. "Captain Phillips... was not addicted to one particular vice, but to every vice," Fillmore wrote.

The better part of a year passed; the pirates attacked other vessels and pressed other men into service; and Fillmore and others plotted to take the ship from Phillips. Naturally, Phillips got wind of the plot.

"Phillips charged me, as he had done my friend, with contriving to betray him, and take the ship," Fillmore recalled. "The accusation was true enough, but I concluded a lie was warrantable in that case, and consequently replied, that I knew nothing of any conspiracy either against him or his crew. I had prepared to make resistance, in case he offered any abuse; but he had a pistol concealed under his coat, which he presented to my breast, and snapped it, before I had time to make any evasion; but happily for me it missed fire. He drew it back, cocked, and presented it again, but I struck it aside with my hand, so that it went off by my side, without doing any injury.

"I thought of knocking out his brains with the handspike that lay near me, but I knew it would be instant death for me, and therefore concluded if he would leave me, I would not meddle with him at that juncture. He then swung his sword over my head, damned me, and bid me go about my business, adding, that he only did it to try me... The pistol missing fire when snapped at my breast, and then going off by my side, was a strong indication to me that Providence had interposed graciously in my preservation -- that our final deliverance from the barbarity of the savage Phillips, and his abandoned banditti, might be more speedily effected."

And so it was. One morning after the rest of the crew had gotten good and drunk the night before, Fillmore, a man named Cheeseman and a captive referred to as "an Indian" rebelled. Direct action was the only thing to win their freedom: "The Master being busied, I saw Cheeseman make the motion to heave him over, and I at that instant, split the boatswain's head in twain with the broad axe, and dropped him upon the deck to welter in his gore. Before the Captain had time to put himself in a posture of defense, I gave him a stroke with the head of my axe, which partly stunned him; at which time Cheeseman, having dispatched the master overboard, came to my assistance, and gave the Captain a blow with his hammer, on the back side of his head, which put an immediate end to his mortal existence."

Having captured the ship, Fillmore and the others took it into Boston, where three of the surviving pirates were executed (and three others were sent to England for that fate). Fillmore concluded: "The honorable court which condemned the pirates gave me Captain Phillips' gun, silver hilted sword, silver shoe and knee buckles, a curious tobacco box, and two gold rings that the pirate Captain Phillips used to wear."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Wisdom of Milliard Fillmore

Every U.S. president leaves behind a body of quotes, a few of which ("Speak softly but carry a big stick") make it into the common heritage of English speakers everywhere.

Alas, none of President Fillmore's quotes fall into that category. Still, he had a few pithy things to say. The following are all attributed to him.

On the hell of being a pre-pension ex-president (a situation not dealt with until the Former Presidents Act of 1958):

"It is a national disgrace that our Presidents, after having occupied the highest position in the country, should be cast adrift, and, perhaps, be compelled to keep a corner grocery for subsistence."

On why he wasn't an abolitionist:

"God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world."

A prescient thought indeed for the mid-19th century:

"England at present wields the destinies of the commercial world, and her power is concentrated in London; but if this country can maintain its union, there are those now within the hearing of my voice who will live to see New York what London is now."

Something to gladden the heart of Ron Paul:

"The government of the United States is a limited government. It is confined to the exercise of powers expressly granted, and such others as may be necessary for carrying those powers into effect; and it is at all times an especial duty to guard against any infringement on the just rights of the states."

On the 19th-century locusts known as office-seekers:

"Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office-seeking. Men of good character and impulses are betrayed by it into all sorts of meanness."

In an antebellum moment of despair:

"May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not."

Sure, I headed up the Know-Nothing Ticket in '56, but some of my best friends are foreigners:

"I have no hostility to foreigners. . . . Having witnessed their deplorable condition in the old country, God forbid I should add to their sufferings by refusing them an asylum in this."

LBJ & the Great Society: 1965

On January 4, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson gave his State of the Union speech, proclaiming the "Great Society."

World affairs will continue to call upon our energy and our courage.

But today we can turn increased attention to the character of American life.

We are in the midst of the greatest upward surge of economic well-being in the history of any nation.

Our flourishing progress has been marked by price stability that is unequaled in the world. Our balance of payments deficit has declined and the soundness of our dollar is unquestioned. I pledge to keep it that way and I urge business and labor to cooperate to that end.

We worked for two centuries to climb this peak of prosperity. But we are only at the beginning of the road to the Great Society. Ahead now is a summit where freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit.

We built this Nation to serve its people.

We want to grow and build and create, but we want progress to be the servant and not the master of man.

We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance, isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure.

The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.

It proposes as the first test for a nation: the quality of its people.

This kind of society will not flower spontaneously from swelling riches and surging power.

It will not be the gift of government or the creation of presidents. It will require of every American, for many generations, both faith in the destination and the fortitude to make the journey.

And like freedom itself, it will always be challenge and not fulfillment. And tonight we accept that challenge.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Millard Fillmore Week

First the basics, which every schoolchild should know.

Born on January 7, 1800, Millard Fillmore rose from modest circumstances to become the last Whig president of the United States on July 9, 1850, when his predecessor died. He himself died on March 8, 1874, reportedly after telling his doctor that "the nourishment is palatable."

His signature is on all the bills forming the Compromise of 1850; the bill that made California a state; an act creating the Washington Territory (essentially the future Washington state); the appointment of Brigham Young as the first governor of the Utah Territory; orders sending Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open Japan; and a message to Napoleon III telling him to back off on plans to annex Hawaii.

Fillmore amassed a library in the White House, having found the place practically empty of books, but he did not install the first bathtub in the executive mansion. His administration resolved major disputes with Peru and Portugal and other nations. He helped found the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo Historical Society.

As the head of the ticket for the American Party in 1856 (the Know-Nothings, unfortunately), former president Fillmore got 21.5 percent of the popular vote, a record for a third party at the time. The only third-party candidate to receive a higher share of the popular vote since then was Theodore Roosevelt, as the head Bull Moose (Progressives) in 1912, with 27.4 percent.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Dead Presidents: January

January is comparatively rich in presidential birthdays and days of death. Leading the pack among chief magistrates born during the first month of the year is none other than Millard Fillmore, born in a log cabin in Cayuga County, New York very early in the year 1800.

Other U.S. presidents born in January were, in order, Richard Nixon (January 9, 1913), William McKinley (January 29, 1843), and Franklin Roosevelt (January 30, 1882). As for vice presidents, other than those who became presidents, the January birth list includes two living -- Walter Mondale and Dick Cheney -- and two dead, John C. Breckinridge and Charles Curtis.

A good number of presidents also checked out in January, beginning with Calvin Coolidge, who supposedly inspired Dorthy Parker to say, "How can they tell?" when informed of the former president's passing, which was on January 5, 1933. Theodore Roosevelt, Rutherford B. Hayes, John Tyler and Lyndon Johnson also joined the ranks of dead presidents in January.

And of course, January is an important month for the U.S. presidency because it includes the newfangled inauguration date, January 20, as specified by the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1933. Since January 20, 1937, 12 presidents have taken the oath of office in January on 19 separate occasions.