A 2021 Look At Presidents’ Day

It’s Presidents’ Day, 2021. Originally designated a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and later expanded to cover both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February, the holiday is now supposed to be a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Still, people mostly use it to celebrate George and Abe and the other great Presidents of American history.

But we’ve just come out of one of the worst years we’ve had in a while, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been gangbusters, either. So let’s acknowledge the current sour mood and use this Presidents’ Day to recognize one of the worst U.S. Presidents ever: James J. Buchanan. Historians may disagree somewhat about precisely who is the best U.S. President, or the absolute worst, but there is surprising unanimity about Buchanan. Everyone thinks this guy was a disaster.

Buchanan had an impressive resume when he was elected in 1856, having served in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as U.S. minister to Great Britain. But the 1850s were deeply troubled times in America, as the country was being pulled apart by slavery. Buchanan immediately provided evidence that he wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the issue in his inaugural address, when he amazingly stated that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” With constant bloody fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and western Missouri, Buchanan managed to stake out a position that absolutely no one on either side agreed with.

Buchanan is reputed to have influenced the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which was issued shortly after his inauguration, and he thought it would put the slavery issue to rest — when instead it served only to further inflame abolitionist forces and spur people like Abraham Lincoln to reengage with national politics. But Buchanan didn’t stop there. He rarely spoke or appeared in public, and did nothing to try to bring the country together as it was spinning apart. Even worse, when Abraham Lincoln’s election caused southern states to begin seceding from the Union, the Buchanan Administration — which was heavily populated with pro-slavery Southerners — allowed the seceding states to seize federal forts and stockpiles that helped the Confederacy arm itself for the coming Civil War. Buchanan threw up his hands at the action of the southern states, and stated: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”

Even more bizarrely, Buchanan thought the President had no real role to play in the great issue of the day. He said: “It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.” When Abraham Lincoln finally took office, states had seceded, treasonous activities had gone unpunished, and James J. Buchanan had done nothing about any of it. Having brought the country to the brink of disaster and disunion while refusing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to address the moral scourge of slavery, Buchanan sought to excuse his inaction. Fortunately, Lincoln was no Buchanan. If he had been, the world would be a much different place.

It’s hard to imagine that we could ever have a worse President than James Buchanan — one more inept or ill-equipped to deal with the compelling issues of the day. Let’s hope we never find out.

The Last Civil War Widow

The news media is reporting that the last documented American Civil War widow has died. The woman, Helen Viola Jackson, passed away on December 16, 2020 at age 101 in a nursing home in Marshfield, Missouri.

You’re no doubt thinking that the Civil War ended in 1865, more than 155 years ago So how could a 101-year-old woman, born in 1919, be a Civil War widow? The answer will remind all of the lawyers out there about “the rule against perpetuities,” “fertile octogenarians,” and other bizarre common law principles about property rights and inheritance that allowed law school professors to tie students in knots while posing uncomfortable, head-scratching hypotheticals about improbable family arrangements.

Ms. Jackson married James Bolin, who served in the 14th Missouri Cavalry in the Civil War, in September 1936 — when she was 17 years old, and he was 93. The two met when Ms. Jackson’s parents volunteered her to help Mr. Bolin with his chores on her way to school. Mr. Bolin did not want to accept charity, so he proposed that the two marry, which would allow Ms. Jackson to be the beneficiary of his Union Army pension payments after his death. She accepted, and they were married. Mr. Bolin then died in 1939, and Ms. Jackson never remarried.

But here’s the kicker: Ms. Jackson did not publicly disclose their marriage, or ever make a claim to receive a pension payment — despite Mr. Bolin’s wishes. She kept their marriage a secret because she did not want Mr. Bolin hurt by “wagging tongues” in the community, and she wanted to preserve her reputation, too — especially since one of Mr. Bolin’s daughters wasn’t happy about the relationship. Ms. Jackson didn’t raise the issue of the marriage until 2017, which caused the Daughters of the Union Veterans organization to examine historical records and verify the marriage and her Civil War widow status.

So, the last living link to the Civil War is gone, generations after the last shots were fired. Ms. Jackson’s story, and her proud decision not to claim those pension payments even during the days of the Great Depression, also reminds us of just how much America has changed.

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

Powerful Thoughts From Dr. King

Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  We remember him because he was a warrior for justice, equality, and peace, because he was an inspiration for millions, because he was a great thinker and stirring speaker, and because he stood up for his beliefs and was not afraid to buck the oppressors in power in order to achieve what he knew was right.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.If you are interested in getting a sense of the man, read the entirety of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written to fellow clergymen in April, 1963 in response to their statements that his actions were “unwise and untimely.”  More than 50 years later, it still resonates with immense power.  Here are a few points he made:

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

These all remain thoughts worth pondering today, more than 50 years later, as we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

The First American

I live in Franklin County, Ohio, where the large statue of Benjamin Franklin pictured below is found at the county courthouse, so it makes sense that at some point I would finally turn to reading a biography of the county’s namesake.  I chose The First American, a fine recent biography by H.W. Brands that is well worth reading if you are interested in learning more about the early history of America and one of its foremost founding fathers.

Franklin is a fascinating character for more reasons that you can reasonably count.  During his lifetime, he was easily the most famous American alive, known and lauded in both America and in Europe for his experiments with lightning and electricity, his invention of the Franklin stove and other devices, and his writings, both in Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere.  He was a hard-working capitalist, turning his printers’ shop into a thriving business and engaging in a number of other commercial ventures, yet he also had his eye on the common welfare and the greater good and played a key role in forming colleges, fire departments, lending libraries, and philosophical societies.  He was exceptionally well-traveled for that era, crossing the Atlantic multiple times, living in England and France, and exploring all parts of the American colonies.  Franklin saw a lot of the world during his 80-plus years, and he unquestionably left it a better place than he found it through his efforts.

Franklin’s life story, more than any other, also is the story of the early days of America.  He was born in Boston and began his writing career jousting with the Puritan fathers who dominated the life and politics of Massachusetts at that time.  He moved to Philadelphia, which quickly grew into the largest and most prosperous city in the colonies, where he became a successful printer and public figure, crossed swords with the Penn family, the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and conducted many of the experiments and created many of the inventions that made him famous.  He was a public spokesman for the colonies during the French and Indian War and made one of the first proposals for colonial unification under a single government, served as a de facto ambassador for the colonies in Great Britain during the years leading to the Revolutionary War where he was castigated in Parliament, became a proponent for independence and returned to America just in time to serve as a member of the Continental Congress and an editor of the Declaration of Independence, then traveled to France to engineer the pact that brought the French into the war on the American side, to broker loans and trade deals to help supply the war effort, and then, after the battle of Yorktown, to negotiate the treaty that ended the conflict.  He returned to America, again, in time to serve multiple terms as Pennsylvania’s president and play an important role in the Constitutional Convention and in encouraging popular support for the new Constitution before dying, in the early days of the new Republic, as a revered and celebrated figure.

Franklin was not a perfect human; he had warts and missteps and embarrassing moments and times of hubris and thoughtlessness.  Yet you can’t help but be struck by the enormity of his accomplishments.  Throughout his 80-plus years of life, Franklin wrote countless letters, engaged with countless historical figures, and left a trail of sayings, witticisms, practical concepts, and scientific ponderings that would do credit to a legion of people.  And he invented bifocals, for which I am particularly grateful since I’ve worn them since I was about 6.

When I read about Franklin, I wonder:  where are the Franklins among our current political class, and is there anyone in our government who even comes close to his record?

 

Timing Labor Day

Every year, Labor Day seems to arrive at just the right time.  It’s been a long summer, you’ve worked hard, fatigue and ennui are weighing you down . . . and suddenly a glorious three-day weekend arrives that allows you to sleep in, spend some time with the family, and revel in a little bit more of summer before cooler autumn comes to town.

This year is no different.  It’s been a really busy summer, with lots of time on the road. From my perspective, at least, the timing of Labor Day could not have been better.

220px-grover_cleveland_-_nara_-_518139_28cropped29I’ve written before about the origins of Labor Day — which is one of the oldest federal holidays, next to Thanksgiving — but it almost wasn’t scheduled for the first Monday in September.  The alternative date was May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day.  President Grover Cleveland decided, however, that having a holiday on that date might encourage labor group protests and general anarchist and socialist rabble-rousing, so the September date was selected instead.

If President Cleveland consciously selected the September date because he wanted to discourage rioting and mass labor marches, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For decades, most Americans have marked Labor Day not with marches and protests, but with grilling out, getting in those last precious moments of pool time, and fortifying themselves against the coming colder weather with a few frosty adult beverages.

Since 1971, when Memorial Day became a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day and Labor Day have bookended the summer months, giving us those wonderful three-day weekends to really set the warm outdoor months apart from the rest of the year.  When you think about it, it was pretty good decision-making by our elected representatives.  This Labor Day, as I enjoy my frosty adult beverage, I’ll take a swig in honor of President Cleveland and his impeccable sense of holiday timing.

Thanks Be To The Essential Man

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of histories and biographies dealing with the American Revolutionary War period and its aftermath.  It’s a fascinating story — and a lot more interesting than the tale of the inevitability of American greatness that we learned in grade school, junior high and high school, long ago.

b4477220555e36e85915d487ac63b5c8One point that has struck me repeatedly as I’ve read is that American independence, and the later welding of the different colonies into a single nation, was a very close call.  There were many instances, during the Revolutionary War, during the Articles of Confederation period, and then as the new nation started to function under the Constitution, when the whole American idea easily could have foundered and the 13 colonies and states could have fractured forever.  The war itself, against the greatest power on earth and fought with a fifth column of Tories opposing the overthrow of British rule, could easily have been lost.  And after the war, as the country stumbled forward into a new, post-colonial world, it became clear that the “Founding Fathers” held to a lot of different notions of what a country should look like, the colonies were wracked by debt that irresponsible politicians were unwilling to pay, and always the scourge of slavery threatened to drive a wedge between the colonies and break them apart.

Inevitably, these near-misses were resolved in significant part through one man:  George Washington.  During the Revolutionary War he was the general who was selected by acclaim and whose reputation for leadership and integrity helped to keep the colonial forces together through repeated disasters.  After the War ended, his willing support of a constitutional convention, and his service as the President of the convention — elected unanimously, of course — gave crucial credibility to the effort to reinvent the government.  And when the new Constitution was finally written, and the new government was ready to start, Washington’s reluctant agreement to serve as the first President — where he deftly mediated between the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson, Adams, Madison,  Hamilton, and others, steered a middle course between the agrarian dreamers and the hard-headed mercantilists, and kept the country functioning, credit-worthy, and out of a war with the British or entanglement with the French Revolution — permitted his thoughtful, deliberate, and typically selfless judgment to set the course for the new nation and establish the many precedents and protocols that have guided the leaders of our country down to the present day,

170px-stuart-george-washington-constable-1797Read biographies of any of the other leaders of early America and you will always see George Washington as a key part of the story, as the figure who had to be persuaded to lend crucial credibility to the cause, as the ultimate decisionmaker, and as the one person who enjoyed heartfelt support from the rock-bound coast of New England, through the mid-Atlantic states, all the way south to the red clay of Georgia.  These days it’s fashionable to poke fun at Washington for his teeth and his careful ways, and to characterize him as a plodder in comparison to the brilliance of the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, but in reality, in the early days of the American experiment, George Washington was the essential man.  The description of Washington as the “Father of His Country” is apt, but it actually may not go far enough in capturing the importance of his central role in holding the early republic together, time and again.  He was the key figure who helped turn 13 squabbling colonies into the United States of America.

This Independence Day, I’m going to reflect for a bit on how very fortunate our country was to have George Washington when and where it did.

Happy Independence Day!

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

History Nerds

Most people don’t know who raised the American flag in that famous World War II photo from the battle of Iwo Jima.  Most of those who do simply accept that information and move on with their lives.

Most people aren’t history nerds.  History nerds question, and probe, and spend countless hours comparing photographs or hunting down film footage.  And in this case, they’ve caused people to reexamine what had long been thought settled about the identity of the American warriors in that iconic image and to ask whether one man who had long been celebrated as a flag-raiser wasn’t in the picture at all.  It’s a fascinating story, and one that you can read about here.

mount_suribachiI’d like to focus, though, not on the Iwo Jima photo and the soldiers, but on the history nerds themselves.  Some will wonder how anyone could be so obsessed with a particular battle from a war that ended more than 60 years ago that they would spend their free time doing the kind of detailed review and analysis that ultimately documented the lingering questions about the flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi.  What, don’t these geeks have lives?

But the reality of nerds the world over is that a passion lurks deep beneath the nerdish, pocket-protector-wearing surface.  Maybe it’s triggered by computers, or by a Star Trek episode or a Dungeons and Dragons game.  In the case of history nerds, it might be a Civil War battle, or a particular historical figure or event that lights the fuse of passion — and once the fuse is lit the nerd feels the need to read everything he can get his hands on about that one historical topic.  Most history nerds stop with binge-reading, but the serious guys go on to the next level.  They participate in Civil War reenactments and take scrupulous care to make sure their uniforms are as authentic as possible, or they fly to the site of the Battle of Agincourt, or they delve into the historical record because a fact that is accepted as settled doesn’t seem quite right.  And sometimes, as in the case of the Iwo Jima photo, those passionate history nerds get to make a bit of history themselves.

It’s interesting that the identity of the Iwo Jima flag raisers could be confused for so long without the actual participants speaking up, but what’s really cool about this story is the unflagging determination of the history nerds to make sure the historical record is right.

Mary Todd Lincoln House

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On her girls’ trip to Kentucky, Kish and her friends visited the Mary Todd Lincoln House.  Technically, it’s the Todd House, where the future First Lad lived before she married our 16th President, but it’s advertised as the Mary Todd Lincoln House by the people who operate it so we’ll go with their designation.

It’s a brick home, originally built in 1806 to serve as an inn.  Robert Todd bought the house in 1832, and Mary Todd lived there until 1839, when she moved to Illinois and there met, and married, Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln himself visited the house once, in 1847.  Kish reports that it’s beautiful inside and worth a visit.

Mary Todd Lincoln was an interesting, star-crossed person.  She was First Lady, but endured many tragedies in her life, including personally witnessing her husband’s assassination, losing three sons to premature deaths, seeing her family divided by the Civil War, and ultimately being briefly institutionalized by her only surviving son.  She paid a high price indeed for fame.

JFK’s Last Speech

 I’m in Fort Worth, Texas for meetings and spent last night at the Fort Worth Hilton because it’s close to the meeting location.  When I learned the hotel also is the site of John F. Kennedy’s last speech, it gave me a chill.

JFK spoke here on the morning of November 22, 1963,  at a breakfast meeting of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.  For a man who was a forceful orator and turned many a memorable phrase, the speech is a thoroughly unremarkable effort, with a standard joke about Jackie Kennedy’s celebrity status, recognition of the politicians and dignitaries who were present, and then a discussion of Fort Worth’s contribution to the continuing need to maintain a strong defense against the Communist threat.  The speech, of course, gave no hint that the history of the country and the world would shift forever a few hours later due to an assassin’s bullet.

There is a little plaza next to the hotel that commemorates the occasion with a statue of JFK, some photos, and some quotes from his speeches.  One of them is:  “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”. With the red brick hotel looming in the background, it’s a sobering place.

The Final Table

Last night Kish and I and the Unkempt Guy and his lovely wife caught The Final Table at the Studio Theater 2 at the Riffe Center.  In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I should note at the outset that I know and like Herb Brown, the author of the play, so you can take my comments with an appropriate grain of salt — but we had a great evening and I’d recommend the play to anybody who likes politics and is willing to see 20th century American historical figures presented from a unique, unvarnished perspective.

IMG_5204First, a quick nod to the theater.  Last night was the first time I’ve  been to a show at Studio Theater 2, and it is a wonderful, intimate venue.  The theater is in the round and seats less than 200 people.  We sat in the very last row and still we were close enough to see the actors and their facial expressions and hear the dialogue clearly.  It’s a perfect setting for a play like this, where the ultimate goal is get the audience thinking about the characters and the humanity behind their historical reputations.

The plot is that five American presidents — in order of appearance, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon — arrive from their own individual purgatorial settings to a room furnished only with a poker table and a dealer/protaganist who happens to be the Muse of History.  They are there to play poker for their immortal souls, at the whim of God and the Angel Gabriel, with the loser to be cast into the fiery pits of hell.  Obviously, it is a tantalizing and thought-provoking premise.

If you like history, as I do, you can’t help but be drawn in by the concept of the play, and Herb Brown does a good job of drawing out the issues based on the historical record.  Why would Dwight Eisenhower be put into a purgatorial cell that has a racial element?  How would Harry Truman interact with the man who defeated him?  Who would ultimately take a leadership role in this cast of Presidents and position them for an ultimate resolution?  And — perhaps most tantalizing at all — how would Richard Nixon play poker?

I won’t spoil the show, but suffice it to say that the play is funny, interesting, and far more vulgar than you would expect if your notion of American presidents is limited to the sanitized and marbleized versions you get in American history class.  The acting is quite good across the board, but I must give special kudos to Jon Putnam, who made Nixon a funny and curiously sympathetic and pathetic figure — not an easy assignment by any measure — and Ralph Scott, who was a titanic and appalling Lyndon Johnson.

The Final Table has drawn such good crowds that it’s run has been extended though May 2.  Catch it if you can!

April 3

In the grand scheme of things, April 3 is not a particularly significant date.  It’s not a deadline for tax filings, or the day on which battles were fought on which the future of the world depended, or significant wars ended, or important discoveries were made.

If you run an internet search on important events that happened on April 3, you’ll see there’s really not much of great consequence.  In fact, the list is pretty remarkable for its blandness, filled with events that are likely to provoke nothing but a shrug and a “so what?”  On April 3, 1043, for example, Edward the Confessor was crowned King of England.  On April 3, 1864, there was a “skirmish at Okolona, Arkansas.”  (Really?  A skirmish makes the list?)  On April 3, 1948, the first U.S. figure skating championships were held.  And April 3 has been a popular day for countries to conduct nuclear tests.

So, in the grand scheme of things, there’s not much that is remarkable about April 3.  But 33 years ago, on April 3, 1982, in a white-framed church in Vermilion, Ohio, Kish and I were married, so it’s an important date for us.  We don’t mind that not much of historical consequence happened on April 3 — it’s as if we get this special day all to ourselves.