Friday, March 23, 2007

David McCullough at Central Michigan University

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to meet presidential biographer and historian David McCullough at Central Michigan University last night. He was sponsored by the Clarke Historical Library. I heard him speak as well to a large crowd at Plachta Auditorium.

David McCullough is a two time Pulitzer Prize winning author of books such as 1776, John Adams, and Truman. He also has narrated several PBS TV series including The Civil War and The American Experience. His book on John Adams is being made into a HBO series which will air next spring.

Mr. McCullough gave a thoughtful and well done presentation that lasted an hour and a half. He used personal narrative from his own life and from the life of great Americans to make his points. Here are a few I would like to summarize:

1. David McCullough spoke at length about how he valued libraries and librarians. He explained how it was librarians who had made his work possible and how everyone who is going to do research needs to make the acquaintance of research librarians who know their library collections. When I had talked with him earlier in the day, he was very interested in that I was a librarian and he asked me about my training and experience.

2. He was very saddened by the lack of history education in the USA. He thought it had gone bad and that students were mostly illiterate on this topic which he feels will hurt the nation. He believes the problem is widespread. "There is no exception to this problem anywhere," McCullough said.

3. David McCullough spoke of the need to demystify history. He noted that the Revolutionary War era Americans were not living in the past but in their present and they did not know how things would turn out. He believed too many students see the past through the lense of history not realizing how these people were real, flawed, and living their lives in very dangerous times.

"They weren't gods; they weren't superhumans. They were humans with flaws and mistakes," he said. "Somehow they responded to the occasion as no generation had before or has done since."

4. He also spoke of the fact that our present will one day be the past and that history will judge us. "History is getting the sense that you are part of history, and you will be judged by history," McCullough said. "This is a powerful kind of motivation." He is hoping this can be communicated to students in a way to make to make the past seem more relevant.

5. McCullough proposed reform in how history teachers for K-12 are prepared. He believes most are trained primarily in education theory and that they are not properly trained in history. This results in these teachers relying too much on textbooks many of which are of poor quality. He wants history teachers who are passionate about history and who major in the subject teaching children.

6. In response to a question from the audience, he threw water on the idea that he could as a historian make a judgement on the current president. He noted that Truman and Lincoln had both been hugely unpopular in the country during their presidencies and that public opinion was not helpful in determining a president's place in history. "We are to close to the events going on, " McCullough said. "It will take 50 years before any objective historical judgement on the current president can take place."

I am very happy that I had the opportunity to hear David McCullough speak and also have the opportunity to talk with him in person. I am now happy to also own autographed copies of Truman and 1776.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Governor Ronald Reagan

The Reagans as Governor and First Lady of California.

I was sorting papers at work a couple of weeks ago and found in the back of magazine on another First Lady, an article about the new First Lady of California – Nancy Reagan. So that led to me to Ronald Reagan’s stint at Governor of California. (I think I must be on a Governor kick as I just talked about Hayes as Governor as well!)

Timeline of Reagan’s life – includes major events of governorship.

Small biography from the state of California

Governor’s Papers from the Reagan Presidential Library

Now of the governor’s papers, a small section is available full text. I’ve picked one to highlight for you:
Statement of Governor Ronald Reagan on Tuition

January 17, 1967

In all the sound and fury of the budget discussion of recent days, this administration has been portrayed as an opponent of educational ideas engaged in total warfare against the academic community – sole defender of cultural and intellectual progress. I think it’s time to put the entire picture in focus and reestablish a sensible and realistic perspective.

Students and parents of student have been unnecessarily disturbed and even frightened by the University’s precipitate and unwarranted freeze on applications. This action, I might add, was taken by the University without consulting the Board of Regents. I have called this action unwarranted and I believe it is completely so.

As plainly as we can we have told the citizens of this state the nature and size of our financial problem. We are trying through economies of roughly 10 percent to effect savings somewhat in excess of $200 million, and we’ll strive for more. But even so a part of the deficit will have to be made up from new revenues. At the same time we must provide a margin for a new, broader-based tax to relieve the overburdened property taxpayer, principally the home owner.

Every segment of government must share in the economies first, as every citizen must share in the increased taxes. Education and welfare total 80 percent or more of the general fund spending. There is no way we could exempt them from the belt tightening that is necessary. If we did, we’d have to eliminate all other government services to arrive at any meaningful reduction.

So there is the problem … we just simply have a shortage of dollars. It is hard to believe there is no leeway for cost cutting in the University program. Right at the moment I’m tempted to suggest a cut in the University’s approximately $700,000-a-year public relations budget since it would seem a good share of it is being spent publicizing me.

But let me make it plain; I don’t pretend the economies will be easy for any of us. Some will – we will find unneeded fat that can be whittled away without scratching a single muscle [fibre], but like any family faced with this problem, we will all have to give up some things we would like. This is a temporary thing. If professors take on an added work load, this isn’t a permanent change in policy. I share their hopes for continued progress in educational standards and achievement, but I ask them now to share in the burden with the rest of us until we can put our house in order.

This brings me to the furor over our suggestion that among the several possibilities for minimizing the effect of budget costs is tuition.

This suggestion resulted in the almost hysterical charge that this would deny educational opportunities to those of the most moderate means. This is obviously untrue for two reasons:

- First, we made it plain that tuition must be accompanied by adequate loans to be paid back after graduation and that scholarships should be available to provide that no deserving students be denied educations due to lack of funds.

More important is the false impression given that enrollment in the University is now in some way based on the ability to pay. This is not true. Eligibility for theUniversity actually is limited to those in the top 12 percent scholastically.

On this principle 88 percent of the high school students cannot go to the University regardless of their finances or their desires.

Let me read from the text of a letter sent to one of our newpapers by three economics professors at UCLA:

“At present, every student, regardless of whether he or his parents are rich or poor, is given a subsidized scholarship of about $2000 a year (actually, our figures show it is about $3000). The wealthy benefit from this bonanza at the expense of the poor. Seventy-two percent of the 18-year-olds from the families with income over $14,000 are in colleges but only 12 percent from families with less than $2000 annual income. Yet, the taxes for financing the bonanza bear more heavily on the poor than on the rich.”

Incidentally, the full text of that letter also is attached.

Now, let me summarize.

The problem, briefly, is finances. We face a major deficit and we must find a way to eliminate it.

The answer lies with all of us. There are no exceptions.

I believe the education sector of our government can and must help in this. Indeed, it has a responsibility to help.

As far as we are concerned we do not intend to continue carrying on this discussion as some sort of a contest in the press.

We now look forward to meeting with the Regents, the Trustees and the administrators in an atmosphere of mutual respect, good will, and understanding to find the best answer for all the people of California.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Tyler Courtship and Wedding

This article details the life of Julia Gardiner Tyler. What I've picked to share today is their courtship and wedding as Tyler was the first man to marry while President. John Tyler came to DC as a married man, but Letitia Tyler died in the fall of 1842. Julia had actually already met the President by this time - they met in January of 1842. But in the spring of 1843, the now widowed Tyler saw Julia again - this at a card party at the White House and was enthralled by the young beauty (he was 30 years older than her). He asked her to marry him within weeks, but she didn't immediately agree as it seemed her mother was against the match. In February of 1844, John and Julia were both on a boat when a gun exploded, killing a number of people, including Julia's father and this seemed to draw them together. The next June, Julia married John Tyler in a secret ceremony in New York. She immediately stepped into the role of First Lady:

"I have commenced my auspicious reign," Julia Tyler wrote after the wedding, "and am in quiet possession of the Presidential Mansion."She became the first first lady to pose for a daguerreotype, and the first to hire a press agent. She was also the first first lady to dance at a White House party, and wherever she went she was accompanied by 12 "maids of honor," six on each side, all dressed alike.

As John Tyler only served 1 term, Julia's tenure as First Lady was over in a matter of months, but she left her mark as the "Lovely Lady Presidentress" and was well loved by the media. She then went back to Viriginia and proceeded to have seven children (to add to the eight Tyler had by his first wife). She was a stauch Confederate supporter and lived until 1889.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hard Luck Whigs

The Whig Party won two presidential elections in the 19th century before the onset of the Civil War. William Henry Harrison won in 1840 and Zachary Taylor won in 1848. However, looking at the brief administrations of the winning tickets, it is hard not to feel bad for those hard luck Whigs.

President Harrison won with John Tyler on the "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" campaign slogan. Alas, Harrison died a little more than a month into his administration. President Tyler became the second Whig president. However, he was so opposed to Whig policies that the Whigs officially kicked him out of the party in 1841! The Whig victory of 1840 was short and they got little out of it.

The 1848 election was slightly more kind to the Whigs. President Taylor lived almost a year and half before he died. President Fillmore became the fourth and last Whig president. While he remained a Whig, many in the Whig Party were not enamored with him. Taylor's entire Cabinet resigned on Fillmore in protest to his policies.

After winning two presidential elections, having four presidents, and holding the White House for eight years, the Whig Party had little to show for it. Historians point to the crisis over slavery, the growing north-south divide, and finally the Civil War for ending the Whig Party.

I wonder though if it was not hard luck of the Whig presidents that brought an end to the party. What if Harrison and Taylor had served a full terms? What if one or both had won second terms? Would strong Whig presidents have been able to solve the constitutional problems that lead to the Civil War? I wonder how different history would have been had the Whigs had some good luck in the White House.

Regardless, I wonder if the fate of Harrison and Taylor convinced other good candidates not to run for president as a Whig. The life expectancy of their winning presidential candidates was not too good...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Did Jefferson Abuse His Authority to Count Himself into the Presidency?

This article by Bruce Ackerman at HNN is very interesting! It asks the question if Jefferson abused his power by counting the votes in the Senate to decide the Election of 1800 - an election which ultimately made him President!

The article mainly discusses the question of Georgia's electoral votes:
Although the Constitution is a famously short document, it devotes an entire sentence to defining a legally valid presidential ballot, requiring electors to “make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government.” Although the Georgians prepared a “list,” nothing identifies Jefferson and Burr as “the Persons voted for.” Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the Georgia document is an electoral vote at all, let alone one that has been “signed” and “certified” as such.
Nevertheless, Jefferson counted it, without giving Congress a chance to consider or overrule his decision. Before condemning him, consider the consequences if he had allowed Congress to intervene. Since there were Federalist majorities in both Houses, Congress would probably have overruled him, opening the door for one of their own candidates to gain the presidency in the House run-off. This result would have been even more shocking, since the Georgia mistake was merely technical, and the state had indeed given their votes to Jefferson and Burr.

The article ends with the thought that this action could provide a dangerous precedent in future elections:
But there is more than history at stake. The Constitution continues to assign the vote-counting job to the sitting vice-president. In 2000, for example, it was Al Gore’s job to preside over the electoral vote count in his hotly-disputed presidential contest with George W. Bush. By the time Gore’s chance came on January 6, 2001, the Supreme Court’s decision in December had reduced the vote-count to an empty ritual. But when the next Electoral College crisis strikes, the Court may not be so interventionist, and it may be up to the President of the Senate, in collaboration with the Congress, to make a final decision on a disputed election. At that point, Thomas Jefferson’s actions of 1801 will serve as a crucial precedent, and we will need all the help that history can give us in muddling our way through yet another constitutional crisis generated by the Founders’ failures in constitutional design.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hayes as Governor of Ohio

First I’ll start with a trivia question (I'm in a trivia mode this week!) – how many presidents were from Ohio? Can you name them?

The Ohio Historical Society has a great biography of Rutherford B. Hayes as Governor of Ohio. I think it is fun to sometimes look at the accomplishment of Presidents in other periods of their life besides just the presidency.

Some neat facts from the biography:
  • Hayes the first Ohio Governor to be elected to a third term
  • Hayes’ first campaign centered around the subject of African-American suffrage
  • The Agricultural and Mechanical College was founded in 1878, which later became Ohio State University
  • Hayes added several hundred letters and other manuscripts on early Ohio history to the Ohio State Library

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Who is this?

I'm trying again and hopefully this one is harder. I found this picture and thought it was lovely so I wanted to share, but am making you work a little for it.

ANSWER: Lou Hoover (Congrats to the Educational Tour Marm for figuring it out!)

One other thing - History Carnival 50 is now up at Early Modern Notes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

10 Most Notorious Presidential Pardons

Time Magazine has an article in the new issue titled 10 Most Notorious Presidential Pardons. I am sure this article is inspired by the calls of many to pardon Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Here is the list:

1. Whiskey Rebels

2. Confederate Citizens

3. Jimmy Hoffa

4. Richard Nixon

5. Vietnam Draft Dodgers

6. Felt and Miller

7. George Steinbrenner

8. Caspar Weinberger

9. Patty Hearst

10. Marc Rich

I would have to classify Johnson's mass pardon of most of the American Civil War rebels as the most notorious. These rebel separatists took up arms against the United States of America and plunged the whole country into four years of hell. Their actions make what Libby did seem kind of pale in comparison. However, I recognize that President Johnson probably did the right thing to help heal the wounds of the war and bring the nation back together again.

The article notes that Washington pardoned the two men convicted of treason in the Whiskey Rebellion. They had been sentenced to death. The article does not mention what Washington said at the time. Washington pardoned them on the grounds that one was a "simpleton," and the other, "insane."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Monroe Crossing the Delaware

Monroe crossing the Delaware.

That sounds strange, doesn’t it? The name of the famous painting should be correctly termed Washington Crossing the Delaware. I misnamed it on purpose to bring another president to the forefront because President James Monroe is also depicted in this famous painting.

Do you see him? The boat is rather crowded, isn’t it? You might notice several different figures of interest. Can you pick out the man of Scottish descent? What about the African Prince Whipple? Can you find the two frontiersmen? The two farmers? What about the man who looks very feminine? No, this isn’t going to be a replay of The Davinci Code…..but, you’ve got to admit the man with the red shirt does look feminine, or at least many art scholars seem to think so.

The artist, Emanuel Leutze, positioned many different types of people in the boat. He was attempting to show that the desire for independence….the willingness to fight for it existed all across the colonies from an African to even the remote west. The feminine man has been suggested by some art scholars to be representative of the many women who followed men in battle and even fought themselves.

Take another look at the painting. The frontiersmen are located at the bow and stern of the durham boat. Prince Whipple is seen kneeling by George Washington. He is looking backwards and is on the backside of the boat. Arguments exists that lay out the case that Whipple did not actually cross with Washington and that he may have been in Baltimore at the time. The two men with hats are the farmers. One has a bandaged head. The Scottish man is on the side of the boat closest to the viewer sitting even with Prince Whipple and he is also facing backwards.

George Washington is very easy to pick out, but what about James Monroe. Where is he? See the young man holding the flag. There he is. The two of them are interesting together in that Washington was our first president under the Constitution while Monroe was our last president who actually fought in the Revolution. Yes, I know that Andrew Jackson was involved during the Revolution, however, he was very young, was a courier, and was held as a British prisoner during the war.

The flag Monroe is holding is one of the inaccuracies of the painting because it did not exist on December 25, 1776. The correct flag at the time would have been the Grand Union flag, the standard of the Continental Army. Many argue even this, however, it would not have been the one used if one was used at all.

There are some questions concerning if Monroe would have actually crossed with Washington. Monroe was a lieutenant at the time and he was at Trenton. He did cross that night along with several other notables in U.S. history including future Chief Justice John Marshall, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton. It has been documented that Monroe was quartered in the house where the decision was made to cross the Delaware and he may have been involved in the discussion. He has been described as a scout and advisor to Washington, but there have been no records to indicate he crossed in Washington’s boat.

James Monroe attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg at the time the Revolution was heating up. When Royal Governor Dunmore left the capital the Governor’s Palace was exposed, and it is said that Jame Monroe joined in with some of his college friends to loot the arsenal. Two hundred muskets and three hundred swords were obtained for the cause. Later Monroe joined the Virginia Third Regiment in the spring of 1776 and saw action in New York before heading to Trenton. Monroe also served as an aide to General William Alexander, was at Valley Forge, and the Battle of Monmouth.

For his efforts at Trenton James Monroe received a near fatal wound to his shoulder. In fact only two Americans were wounded at Trenton….Monroe and William Washington, a cousin to George Washington. The injury occcurred as the Americans tried to rush the Hessian soldiers to prevent them from using their guns. The bullet grazed Monroe’s chest before entering the shoulder. John Bumgarner’s The Health of the President advises a major artery that brings blood to the arm was injured. Monroe would have bled to death if a doctor had not saved his life by sticking his index finger into the wound and applying pressure. The bullet remained in Monroe shoulder for the rest of his life.

James Monroe was an authentic Revolutionary War hero and he died appropriately on July 4th following in the footsteps of Jefferson and Adams who had passed on the same date five years earlier.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Election of 1848

Zachary Taylor was chosen by the Whigs in 1848 because of his war record. The Miller Center of Public Affairs writes:
Since Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828, military leaders with a rough-hewn public persona -- whether genuine or not -- had been popular with voters. Helped largely by the behind-the-scenes negotiations of Thurlow Weed, Taylor led on the first ballot and clinched the nomination on the fourth.

Taylor was a Louisiana slave owner and so Millard Fillmore was selected to contrast him:
As a consolation prize to slavery opponents, the party searched for a vice presidential nominee who was more aligned with their views. Daniel Webster was offered the spot but refused, growling that Taylor was nothing but "an illiterate frontier colonel." A New York ally of Millard Fillmore's brought up his name, and the Whigs selected him as their candidate. As with so many other tickets, it was hoped that Fillmore's contrast in beliefs, style, and geographic origin with the presidential nominee would broaden the ticket's appeal.

While both parties tried to avoid the topic of slavery, it was on everyone's mind. The election was very close and both sides tried to use slavery to discredit their opponents.

Taylor and Fillmore's odd match - chosen for political reasons - would continue after the election:
The new vice president and President were an odd match. The tall, gentlemanly, well-dressed Millard Fillmore looked every bit the statesman. Zachary Taylor stood on unusually short legs -- during the Mexican War, he needed help climbing onto his horse, which he rode sidesaddle into battle; Old Rough and Ready was craggy, unkempt, and unlearned. The two had not met until after the election, and they did not hit it off when they did. Once in Washington, Taylor wasted no time shutting Millard Fillmore out of his administration. Other Whig leaders like Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward found favor with the new President and convinced him to deny Fillmore most patronage appointments in New York. The vice president's key ally, Henry Clay, was not offered a cabinet post. As vice president and thus president of the Senate, Fillmore held the tie-breaking vote in Senate sessions. In fulfilling these responsibilities, he was respected for his wisdom, humor, and ability to accommodate diverse views there. But he had virtually no role in Taylor's presidency.

The Compromise of 1850 became a major political issue of the term. Taylor took little interest, but threatened a veto of it. In July of 1850, Taylor suddenly died and Fillmore becomes President:
The presidency had suddenly fallen upon a forgotten man. Millard Fillmore, who had been all but banished from the Taylor administration and held opinions very different from the late chief executive, was suddenly the President of the United States. He immediately replaced Taylor's cabinet with proponents of the compromise and threw the full weight of his new administration behind its passage.

The country had elected a Louisiana war hero, but within 16 months, they had a New York politic an instead.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Diaries of John Quincy Adams

The Massachusetts Historical Society has the diaries of John Quincy Adams available online. You can browse them by volume, search by date, or pick from the timeline. The MHS also has pages of interest pre-marked by subject so you can find the well known sections quickly.

The letters have been digitized, not transcribed, which means you get the fun experience of reading JQA's handwriting - which is much better than his mother's, if nothing else!

Here are some highlights:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

James Buchanan and the Election of 1856

I admit it - I felt sorry for James Buchanan after he made the top of the worst President list. So I decided he needed a post of his own. I've put two campaign posters on the left side to go with my comments on the Election of 1856.
So why did Buchanan get the Democratic nomination? Well, according to the Miller Center of Public Affairs:
Hailing from a populous state as a longtime member of Congress and an envoy to Russia and England, Buchanan had many attractive political assets. In essence, Buchanan gave the delegates the kind of hope that seemed in very short supply during the tumultuous mid-1850s. A smooth, pleasantly dull conservative, he upset few people. Above all, Buchanan was from the North, yet he maintained ideological ties to the South -- a "doughface" in the slang of the day. Buchanan forces quietly told the Douglas men that cooperation from the "Little Giant" would enhance his chances for 1860, and Douglas withdrew from the race. "Old Buck" got more ballots than any other candidate in the first round, and he clinched the Democratic nomination with the requisite two-thirds majority on the seventeenth ballot, an easy victory during that bitter era. John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky received the party's vice presidential nod.
Who was Buchanan running against? California Senator John Fremont - a famous explorer and former President Millard Fillmore with the Know-Nothing party.
In 1856, slavery was the hot topic - "Bleeding Kansas" and other similar issues were on everyone's mind. Buchanan went the traditional method campaigning - doing almost no campaigning of his own. The election quickly became dirty:
Political dirty tricks were the norm. Democrats marked badges "Black Republican" depicting a runaway slave and made frequent jabs at Frémont's out-of-wedlock birth. Republicans countered with remarks about Buchanan's age and bachelorhood as well as the nickname "Ten-Cent Jimmy" after he unwisely said in public that he considered ten cents a day a fair wage for manual laborers. They also suggested that Buchanan's trademark tendency to tilt his head stemmed not from deficient eyesight but because he had once tried to hang himself.

On the actual campaign issues, Buchanan kept with the traditional method of individual states choosing to allow or ban slavery. Fremont was a staunch abolitionist. The Know-Nothing Party actually helped Buchanan - charging Fremont with Catholicism and taking away some of his voter base. Buchanan carried the South and the border states, but with deep divisions in the North, still only took about 1/2 of the popular vote.
Buchanan had wanted to be President, but the situation of the US in 1856 had him penning these lines before the election: I had hoped for the nomination in 1844, again in 1848, and even in 1852, but now I would hesitate to take it. Before many years the abolitionists will bring war upon this land. It may come during the next presidential term.

For a different take, there is a great lesson plan offered by the Center for American Music at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh. It offers a way to teach the Election of 1856 through music, such as this song:

The White House Chair

Come all ye men of every state,
Our creed is broad and fair;
Buchanan is our candidate,
And we'll put him in the White House Chair.

Then come ye men from ev'ry state,
Our creed is broad and fair;
Buchanan is our candidate,
And we'll put him in the White House Chair.

Let all our hearts for union be,
For the North and south are one;
They've worked together manfully,
And together they will still work on.

We'll have no dark designing band
To rule with secret sway;
We'll give to all a helping hand,
And be open as the light of day.

We'll not outlaw the land that holds
The bones of Washington;
Where Jackson fought and Marion bled,
And the battles of the brave were won.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The 10 Worst Presidents

US News and World Report has The 10 Worst Presidents by Jay Tolson. The article actually lists eleven!

Who made the list? They are:

1. James Buchanan (No surprise there!)

2. Warren G. Harding

3. Andrew Johnson

4. Franklin Pierce

5. Millard Fillmore

6. John Tyler

7. Ulysses S. Grant

8. William Harrison

9. (tie) Herbert Hoover

9. (tie) Richard Nixon

10. Zachary Taylor

I do not think it is fair to have Harrison on the list. He was not President long enough to give an assessment of his presidential abilities. There is also a brief overview of each "bad" president. I love this paragraph on Harding. "Warren G. Harding's claim to infamy rests on spectacular ineptitude captured in his own pathetic words: "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here." A former publisher who won a string of offices in his native Ohio, he was an unrestrained womanizer noted for his affability, good looks, and implacable desire to please. It was good, his father once told him, that he hadn't been born a girl, "because you'd be in the family way all the time. You can't say no."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

President Wilson's Other Wife

Ask many people about President Woodrow Wilson’s wife and they might tell you things like, “Oh, she’s the one that took over the White House after Wilson’s stroke.”

Yes, some historians refer to the period immedately following Wilson’s stroke in 1919 as the Petticoat Government since Edith Wilson did curtail prying eyes from viewing the stricken president. The First Lady didn’t allow any visitor or document reach the President without her approval. She managed to hold off everyone long enough for Wilson to recover somewhat. However, what we need to remember here is Edith Gault Wilson was the President’s second wife. Today I’d like to take a look at the “first” First Lady during Wilson’s presidency.

In this week’s Wordless Wednesday over at History Is Elementary, I hinted that the painting in question involved a famous artist colony, the city of Rome, and government service. The title of the featured piece is Side Porch, Griswold House, 1910 and the artist is Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson.

The first Mrs. Wilson was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1860, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Most of her life was spent in Rome, Georgia’s own version of the city of seven hills. President Wilson also grew up in Georgia, and was also the child of a minister. Your can see his childhood home here.

Mrs. Wilson studied art at the Art Students’ League in New York. The New Georgia Encyclopedia advises she created crayon portraits from photographs and sold them. She often put her art pursuits on hold to run her household, attend to her three daughters, and to be available for her husband as he progressed through academic ranks to finally become president of Princeton in 1902.

In 1905, Mrs. Wilson returned ernestly to her art when her brother, his wife, and their son drowned in a Georgia river. She created a scholarship at Berry College in memory of her brother and sold various paintings to fund it. It was during this time that Mrs. Wilson did her most serious painting. She, along with President Wilson and their daughters, began to spend their summers in Connecticut at the bording house of Francis Griswold. Many Impressionist artists such as Childe Hassam and Frank Dumond stayed with Mrs. Griswold as well, and this community of painters became known as the Old Lyme Art Colony. Today the Florence Griswold home is a museum. Many of Wilson’s paintings bear only the initials E.W. as she did not want to overshadow her husband’s career in any way, however, her works often appeared in one-woman shows, she won awards, and some of her artwork was displayed at the Chicago Art Institute.

It would appear from his correspondence that President Wilson enjoyed the trips to Old Lyme as much as his wife. In his article Woodrow Wilson, A Lighter Side Edmund T. Delaney quotes Wilson from correspondence dating back to 1909 where Wilson advises

“Lyme is one of the most stately and old fashioned of New England villages, and we shall be boarding not with New Englanders, who get on my nerves, but with a jolly irresponsible lot of artists, natives of Bohemia, who have about cleared the air of the broad free world . . . Lyme is a delightful haven in which to sleep, sleep interminably, as I love to do, when I am worn out."

Unfortunately, the trips to Connecticut stopped for the Wilsons once Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey. He noted, “if we take a house by the sea, it must be in Old New Jersey, which would not forgive us if we went elsewhere". Thus the family opted to forgo the seashore and settled for the hills of Cornish on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River.

Once the Wilson’s reached the White House Ellen Wilson did not give up her art pursuits. She had a studio with a skylight installed in 1913. Many of her biographers quote White House staff members fondly remembering her as calm, sweet, motherly, pretty, and refined.

Mrs. Wilson pursued more than just her art as First Lady, however. She worked for the poor in an attempt to clean up the slums of Washington D.C., she organized the White House Rose Garden, and besides the regular round of official duties and dinners she also arranged for the White House wedding for not one daughter but two.

Unfortunately, Ellen Axson Wilson died seventeen months into Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from Bright’s Disease. Currently she is the only First Lady buried in Georgia. She lies next to her parents at Mrytle Hill Cemetary in Rome, Georgia.

This post was also published at History Is Elementary.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Classical Antiquity And the Politics of America: From George Washington to George W. Bush

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY AND THE POLITICS OF AMERICA: FROM GEORGE WASHINGTON TO GEORGE W. BUSH (published by Baylor University Press). My thanks to Michael Meckler for permission to post this excerpt.
Although retired from public office after leaving the presidency in 1809, Thomas Jefferson continued keenly to follow political news that reached his home at Monticello. In December 1819, Jefferson was increasingly troubled by the conflict in Congress over whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a state where slavery was permitted. The 76-year-old statesman had long since resumed a regular correspondence with his predecessor and one-time rival, John Adams. Now in the crisis over the Missouri question, Jefferson wrote to Adams of his concerns that the issue of slavery would tear the still young nation asunder.

Jefferson’s letter also contained musings over the correspondence of the Roman orator Cicero. Cicero, too, had lived in tumultuous times, witnessing the collapse of the Roman republic, Julius Caesar’s rise to absolute power, and the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s own assassination. Yet Jefferson was hesitant to draw too many similarities between the Roman and American republics.

“When the enthusiasm however kindled by Cicero’s pen and principles,” wrote Jefferson, “subsides into cool reflection, I ask myself What was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, and the ambition of Caesar to subvert? And if Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government? I do not say restore it, because they never had it, from the rape of the Sabines to the ravages of the Caesars.”

The 84-year-old Adams agreed with Jefferson about the nature of the Roman republic. Concerning the Romans, Adams wrote in reply, “I never could discover that they possessed much Virtue, or real Liberty there. Patricians were in general griping Usurers and Tyrannical Creditors in all ages. Pride, Strength and Courage were all the Virtues that composed their National Characters. A few of their Nobles, effecting simplicity frugality and Piety, perhaps really possessing them, acquired Popularity amongst the Plebeians and extended the power and Dominions of the Republic and advanced in Glory till Riches and Luxury came in, sat like an incubus on the Republic, victamque ulcissitur orbem.”

The Latin phrase with which Adams ended this section of his letter was taken, with not the best memory of grammar and syntax, from a line in the sixth satire of the Roman poet Juvenal, luxuria incubuit victumque ulciscitur orbem (“Luxury has rested upon and avenged a conquered world.”). Throughout this letter Adams expressed a dark concern that the hard work that resulted in prosperity in turn created luxury and moral decay. This pessimism extended even to the American republic’s own future.

“I am sometimes Cassandra enough to dream,” Adams wrote in the paragraph preceding his just described judgment on the Romans, “that another Hamilton, another Burr might rend this mighty Fabric in twain, or perhaps into a leash, and few more choice Spirits of the same Stamp, might produce as many Nations in North America as there are in Europe.”

The joining in a single sentence of Cassandra, the unheeded Trojan prophetess of doom from ancient literature, with the names of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr demonstrates how integral classical antiquity was to the foundation and interpretation of the governing principles of the United States. The concerns over tensions tearing at the United States in 1819 naturally evoked contemplation of the tensions that destroyed the polities — both real and mythic — of the ancient Mediterranean.