Thursday, January 31, 2008

President Bush Delivers State of the Union

President Bush gave the 2008 State of the Union Address on Tuesday night. Full-text of the speech is up at the White House site as President Bush Delivers State of the Union. If you missed the speech, this is a good place to check out the text. It also gives those of us who lheard the speech istned live to be able to peruse the words at our leisure.

From the speech:

THE PRESIDENT: Madam Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens: Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum. In that time, our country has been tested in ways none of us could have imagined. We faced hard decisions about peace and war, rising competition in the world economy, and the health and welfare of our citizens. These issues call for vigorous debate, and I think it's fair to say we've answered the call. Yet history will record that amid our differences, we acted with purpose. And together, we showed the world the power and resilience of American self-government.

All of us were sent to Washington to carry out the people's business. That is the purpose of this body. It is the meaning of our oath. It remains our charge to keep.

The actions of the 110th Congress will affect the security and prosperity of our nation long after this session has ended. In this election year, let us show our fellow Americans that we recognize our responsibilities and are determined to meet them. Let us show them that Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time. (Applause.)

From expanding opportunity to protecting our country, we've made good progress. Yet we have unfinished business before us, and the American people expect us to get it done.

In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our nation great. As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free peoples to make wise decisions, and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.

To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy. As we meet tonight, our economy is undergoing a period of uncertainty. America has added jobs for a record 52 straight months, but jobs are now growing at a slower pace. Wages are up, but so are prices for food and gas. Exports are rising, but the housing market has declined. At kitchen tables across our country, there is a concern about our economic future.

In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth. But in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing. So last week, my administration reached agreement with Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner on a robust growth package that includes tax relief for individuals and families and incentives for business investment. The temptation will be to load up the bill. That would delay it or derail it, and neither option is acceptable. (Applause.) This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working. And this Congress must pass it as soon as possible. (Applause.)

Full Transcript

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Poll: Which First Lady seems to have been the most depressed?

The poll has closed for the question, "Which First Lady seems to have been the most depressed?" Thanks to all who participated by voting.

Mary Todd Lincoln won easily with 67%. Jane Pierce was a distant second with 18%. Lucy Hayes had 8% and Sarah Polk had 5%. I will confess that Jane Pierce got my vote but there is a strong case for Mrs. Lincoln as well.

Thanks to Jennie W. for the question.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Margaret Truman Dies

Margaret Truman, Harry Truman's daughter, died today. She was 83.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jefferson Lived Here and Here and Here...

I usually have to make a trade off each year in order to claim the privilege of teaching history. The trade off is teaching Language Arts as well to one or two groups of students. One of the writing assignments I provide students with each year is an essay regarding the different places they have lived, or if they haven’t moved around a bit they can write about their present home.

I might as well be telling my fourth graders we are going to move a pile of bricks from one location to another over and over for the entire day when I introduce a new writing assignment. The minute I even announce a writing assignment a wide assortment of groans and moans escape the mouths of my students. I can’t really blame them because in my own writing life I don’t want to be given a topic and then told to perform right then and there. Writing is personal. You have to want to do it. You must be connected to your topic in some way, and sometimes it just takes time.

Therefore I often try to get students motivated with some sort of connection-building exercise. I tell them some sort quirky detail from my own life (I have several), I read a short story aloud to them, or I have also shown a video clip. I follow this with a discussion where as a whole group we brainstorm various points they could include in their writing.

In order to motivate students to write about their homes I like to use Thomas Jefferson as my bridge.

There are so many things to think about when you bring up the name Thomas Jefferson. His role as an American Patriot, writing the Declaration of Independence, his love of great food, wine, and conversation, the Louisiana Purchase, or even the election of 1800 are just a few of the things that come to mind.

However, when posed with the question regarding Jefferson’s residence it is so very predictable the answer will always be Monticello. From the first moment we see a nickel Jefferson’s beloved Monticello becomes ingrained in our memories. Even when students don’t know the name Monticello they always tell me his house is on the nickel and many want to prove it by pulling a nickel out of their pocket.

Monticello, however, isn’t the only spot Jefferson described as home.

Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, owned many different plots of land in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell situated near Charlottesville. The land was named after the area where Jane Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s mother, had been born in London. Historian Willard Sterne Randall in Thomas Jefferson: A Life describes the Jefferson ancestral home as a simple farmhouse in the middle of a horseshoe of outbuildings in a clearing at the edge of the Virginia wilderness overlooking the Rivanna River. Our third president was born there on April 13, 1743.
Jefferson left Shadwell at the age of two to move with his family to Tuckahoe Plantation (seen at left) in Goochland County, Virginia. Architecture historian Jack McLaughlin states in his book Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder the Jefferson family moved to Tuckahoe due to a promise Peter Jefferson had made to his friend William Randolph before Randolph’s death. Randolph would be leaving behind two underage children and he wanted Jefferson to mange Tuckahoe until his son, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., was able to manage the plantation .

Seven years of Thomas Jefferson’s childhood was spent at Tuckahoe Plantation. Today Tuckahoe is listed on the National Historic Register. It is a private residence, but it is open for tours and events as well. It is thought to be one of the finest early 18th century plantations in America. The home’s “H” shape is unusual and the property contains many of the original out buildings including a schoolhouse where it is said Thomas Jefferson attended for awhile. In his autobiography Thomas Jefferson remembered his years at Tuckahoe fondly especially the spaciousness of the home as compared to Shadwell.

Once Peter Jefferson’s promise to William Randolph was completed the Jefferson family moved back to their farmhouse at Shadwell. Randall advises in his book that once Peter Jefferson returned to Shadwell he set about expanding the home to fit his growing family. The nine year old Thomas Jefferson began to think it was natural to live in a continuous construction zone….something he carried over into his adult life. Later after Peter’s death and Thomas Jefferson’s classical education began he would return to Shadwell during interterm breaks where he spent much of his time studying and walking up the mountain where he would one day build Monticello.

Unfortunately all that exists of Shadwell today is a historical marker (see first picture) and a foundation that has been excavated. Some years after Peter Jefferson’s death on February 1, 1770 the home was destroyed by fire and the family had to find a new home. Thomas Jefferson’s mother and sisters took up residence in the overseer’s home while Jefferson was boarding in Charlottesville. Is is said the fire sped up the construction at Monticello.

We are familiar with the vast library of books Thomas Jefferson donated to the Library of Congress, however, it was Jefferson’s second library. His first one was destroyed unfortunately in the Shadwell fire. McLaughlin advises it contained law papers, personal correspondence, records, accounts, and the books of a man whose writings and books were the nature of his exsistence. This was not only a personal loss for Jefferson, but a heavy blow to Jefferson scholarship since all the records of his formative years were destroyed.

At the age of 14 Thomas Jefferson received his inheritance of approximately 5,000 acres of land and many slaves. Before he began managing the land he was sent to the home and school of Minister James Maury from 1758 to 1760. Rev. Maury lived near Gordonsville, Virginia and his school was known for heavy classical studies including manners and morals, math, literature, history, geography, Latin, and Greek. James Madison and James Monroe also went to the school. In his autobiography Thomas Jefferson referred to Rev. Maury as a “correct and classical scholar”.

Following his stint at Maury’s school Jefferson’s next residence was the Sir Christopher Wren Building at William and Mary. Constructed between 1695 and 1699 the building was considered old when Thomas Jefferson lived there though the building had been gutted in a fire in 1705. Today the building serves as faculty offices and classrooms.

In 1768 work finally began on Monticello. Jefferson moved into the South Pavilion (an outbuilding) in 1770. Historians often refer to this Monticello as Monticello I which refers to the home he built to raise a family while he served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Second Continental Congress, and as governor of Virginia. If we could travel back in time we would be surprised at Monticello I. The Thomas Jefferson Wiki states the first version was less ambitious and more modest in size. By 1782 the home had been enclosed but in a letter written twelve years after his return from France Jefferson stated he was “living in a brick kiln” which could mean the interior was not complete. Monticello II incorporated many of the ideas Jefferson brought back from his stay in France, and is the home that can be toured today.

During Jefferson’s years in Paris he first resided with the American painter John Trumbull, but eventually moved to the Hotel de Langeac, located on the Champs-Elysees at the corner of Rue de Berry. Unfortunately the building was torn down in 1840. A wonderful article from American Heritage magazine provides a great look at Jefferson in Paris. The image seen to the left looks down the Champs-Elysees through the Grille de Chaillot. Jefferson’s Paris home is seen on the left near corner. It is said he began remodeling the property as soon as he moved in. Langeac taught him a number of architectural lessons, which he would incorporate into Monticello, among them the use of skylights to adequately illuminate interior windowless rooms and the realization that the skylights could be made weather tight.

Poplar Forest (below) became the site where the Jefferson family went after the British invaded Monticello in 1781. The property had come Jefferson’s way following the death of his father-in-law, James Wayles. At the time there wasn’t much there but fields and an overseer’s house. When attempting to compute the national debt the then President Jefferson was caught up in a rainstorm while visiting Poplar Forest. The president had to take refuge in the cramped overseer’s home, and realized the advantages of having a quiet place even though he was elbow-to-elbow with the overseer’s wife, children, and pets.

By 1801 Thomas Jefferson was very public person. He was known very well and people clamored for his attention. It isn’t surprising that Jefferson would have looked for a quiet place to simply be the private Jefferson. Construction began at the Poplar Forest retreat in 1806.

The website for Poplar Forest quotes historian David McCullough:

“More and more it is becoming clear how very important Poplar Forest is to our enlarged understanding of Thomas Jefferson and the reach of his imagination. That Jefferson was, along with so many other things, one of the premier American architects, has been long appreciated, but the originality and ingenuity of Poplar Forest—especially now that it is being so superbly restored—raise his standing still higher. This is an American masterpiece by a great American artist who also happened to be President of the United States .”

Many of my students move and move often. By discussing Jefferson and his many different residences students can connect to an important historical figure and can compare and contrast the reasons for moving as well. The process begins to get children to focus on what different residences can provide as well as honing in on how a residence can shape a person regarding their outlook on life’s pursuits.

Research note: A few web sources indicate the Jefferson family moved to Edge Hill. While it is a farm that scholarly sources state belonged to Peter Jefferson I could find no sources that confirmed Thomas Jefferson lived there. At one point the property at Edge Hill transferred to Jefferson’s sister and her husband (a member of the Randolph family) which could add to the confusion.

Length of State of the Union Messages and Addresses in Words

While we wait eagerly for tonight's State of the Union Address, take some time to check out Length of State of the Union Messages and Addresses in Words. It was produced by the American Presidency Project.

The contrast in length of speeches through the years is huge. The first Annual Message (now called the State of the Union) by George Washington was only 1,089 words. In contrast, Clinton's State of the Union in 1995 was 9,190. The Constitution does not require that a State of the Union be delivered orally. Many times a president has submitted the State of the Union as a written report to Congress. In 1981, Carter delivered a 33,667 word State of the Union. Thankfully he did not deliver that as a speech to a national audience!

If you do not find the State of the Union Address fun or exciting, check out The State of the Union Address Drinking Game 2008. There is always something exciting to be done around this annual ritual.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Presidential Election Comment Spam Attempts

In the last three days, this blog has been subjected to a comment spam attack from what would appear to be supporters of Democratic Presidential candidates Clinton and Obama or people working for their opponents trying to make it appear as though their opposition is making the attack. I am very thankful that I have made my comments require approval and that no comments get published without my OK.

I will not repeat the comments here. They tend to run like as follows, "Is it true that [candidate] was a [member of X] or [voted for X]? Any information on this would be welcomed." I am not stupid. These comments will not be approved and published.

I suppose that the fact that the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday and that Super Tuesday is coming up is behind this. I anticipate more of these comments as the next several days progress. I will continue to reject these sorts of comments.

For all bloggers who have blogs or posts which are presidential themed, please monitor your comments carefully. If you allow comments without moderation, be vigilant in deleting posts like those I have described above. These attacks comments are not helpful and may damage the credibility of your blog.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Will Mount Rushmore Last Forever?

Mt. Rushmore is a famous landmark in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The faces of four American Presidents are carved into the mountain. According to a new book, this faces may last 7.2 million years (not forever but still a long time.)

The book is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. A review in the New Yorker noted, "Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment—what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished—Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house. Among the highlights: with pumps not working, the New York City subways would fill with water within days, while weeds and then trees would retake the buckled streets and wild predators would ravage the domesticated dogs. Texas’s unattended petrochemical complexes might ignite, scattering hydrogen cyanide to the winds—a mini chemical nuclear winter. After thousands of years, the Chunnel, rubber tires, and more than a billion tons of plastic might remain, but eventually a polymer-eating microbe could evolve, and, with the spectacular return of fish and bird populations, the earth might revert to Eden."

While most signs of humanity vanish fairly quickly, not so the Presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Weisman wrote, "According to geologists, Mount Rushmore's granite erodes only one inch every 10,000 years. At that rate, barring asteroid collision or a particularly violent earthquake in this seismically stable center of the continent, at least vestiges of Roosevelt's 60 foot likeness, memorializing his canal, will be around for the next 7.2 million years" (p. 182).

If society collapses, and then comes back some distant time in the future, I wonder what they will make of Mount Rushmore? I am guessing they will think the Black Hills were sacred and that these men are the representation of gods. Or maybe they will just think that whatever society built the monument had an overdeveloped ego.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

James Garfield at the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

The Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers was an encyclopedia edited by John J. Lalor, first published in New York in 1881. The 1899 edition of the work is published online by the Library of Economics and Liberty. It is now in the public domain.

There are several biographies of American Presidents. They are worth taking a look at and comparing with more recent works.

Here is the biography of James Garfield:

GARFIELD, James Abram, president of the United States 1881, was born at Orange, Cuyahoga county, Ohio, Nov. 19, 1831, and died at Elberon, N. J., Sept. 19, 1881. He was graduated at Williams college in 1856; became a professor in, and afterward president of, Hiram college, Ohio; was admitted to the bar, and served in the army 1861-3, reaching the grade of major general. He was a republican representative in congress 1863-81, was elected U. S. senator for the term 1881-7, but before he took his seat was elected president, July 2, 1881, he was shot by a disappointed office seeker, and the injury resulted in his death.

—Garfield's rise form the position of a driver of mules upon the tow-path to the presidency was great, but others before him have compassed as great an interval. His exceptional success, among the crowd of self-made presidents, Jackson, Van Buren, Fillmore, Lincoln and Johnson, lay in his attainment of a breadth of culture which none of the others approached, and which, though it lay outside of polities, had a very strong influence upon his political career. His life and letters show his constant anxiety to develop his mental powers in every department of thought, so that before his untimely death he had become an intellectual athlete. It is unfortunately useless to speculate on the breadth of development to which twenty years further life and activity would have carried him.

—In congress Garfield was one of the mass of republican members during Thaddeus Stevens' leadership, and after Stevens' death he was by no means the most prominent republican leader until 1876-8, when he met and was a prime factor in defeating the spread of the greenback or "soft money" idea in his party. (See GREEN-BACK-LABOR PARTY, REPUBLICAN PARTY.) The extra sesson of the 46th congress, March 18, 1879 (see VETO), gave him almost the first rank as a party leader. By common consent the work of the debate was left to him. His charge that the southern democrats, having failed to defeat the government in the field, were now endeavoring to "starve it to death," was a very taking and comprehensible point, and did good service for some time afterward. When, in the republican national convention of 1880, it was found that the majority of delegates were divided between Blaine and Sherman, that a strong minority (about 306 in number) were determined upon Grant, and that changes were hopeless, a sudden movement of all the factions nominated Garfield, June 8, on the thirty-sixth ballot, against his own protest. In November he was elected. (See ELECTORAL VOTES.)

—Only two points of Garfield's career have seemed vulnerable to his political opponents: his reception of a fee of $5,000 for arguing the De Golyer claim before a congressional committee, and his alleged complicity in the credit mobilier fraud. (See CREDIT MOBILIER.) As to the former case it need only be said that the arguing of cases, or giving opinions in cases, before courts or committees, by lawyers who are also congressmen, has never been condemned by public opinion and has been unhesitatingly followed by men of all parties; and that in this case the opinion seems to have been worth the fee paid for it. In the latter case the only evidence against Garfield is the naked assertion of Oakes Ames; in his favor are the facts that Garfield was notoriously poor; that he might have used his committee positions to enrich himself with far less danger of exposure than by accepting credit mobilier stock; and, above all, that the stock, which Ames claimed to have given Garfield, remained in Ames' possession for all the five years from 1868 until the explosion in 1873, that its enormous dividends were unhesitatingly appropriated by Ames, and that he showed no notion, until the explosion came, that the stock had ever been the property of any other person than himself. All this would seem absolutely conclusive in the case of any one but a presidential candidate.

—The two New York senators, Conkling and T. C. Platt, were republicans of the Grant faction. Immediately after his inauguration in March, 1881, President Garfield attempted to recognize all the factions of his party in the matter of appointments; but, as the most important New York appointment was given to their opponent, the New York senators, after vainly struggling against its confirmation until May, suddenly resigned, left their party in a minority in the senate, and brought about a great political uproar. A disappointed office seeker, thinking that the Conkling faction would justify any method of attack upon the president, chose this time to gratify his resentment for the refusal to appoint him to a consulship, and shot the president, announcing himself as Conkling's champion. The horrible calamity of the president's assassination served at least one useful purpose; it threw a vivid light upon the evils of the American system of appointments to and removals from office.

—See Hiusdale's Republican Text Book of 1880; Brisbin's Life of Garfield; Bundy's Life of Garfield; Gilmore's Life of Garfield; Balch's Life of Garfield; Smalley's History of the Republican Party.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Photos found of Lincoln's second inauguration

Some new photos have been found of Lincoln's second inauguration. An article by Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times titled Photos found of Lincoln's second inauguration has the details.

Here is the text of the Library of Congress’ announcement:

Details of Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration come into clearer focus with the recent discovery at the Library of Congress of three glass negatives that show the large crowd gathered at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the president's address on March 4, 1865.

These negatives had been labeled long ago as being either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant. Carol Johnson, a curator of photography at the Library of Congress, spotted the misidentification on Friday, Jan. 4, while checking old logbooks and finding the annotation "Lincoln?" in the margin. Only two other photos of Lincoln's second inauguration were previously known, but a careful visual comparison confirmed that these three negatives portray the same event.

"These negatives add to our knowledge of this special event," said Johnson. "They show what that wet Saturday looked like with the massing of the crowd. They also convey the excitement of the people."

Johnson was prompted to examine the negatives after a Library of Congress patron alerted her to the fact that these visually similar photos had radically different identifications in the Library's online Civil War photographic negative collection. But instead of choosing between Grant and the Grand Armies Review, she opened a new door to the past by looking closely at the images and recognizing Lincoln's second inauguration.

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division has updated the catalog records. To view the full set of photos, visit the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog at

Here are the photo links:

Soldiers and crowd:

Soldiers lining up:

Soldiers lined up:

People arriving (previously known image used for comparison):

The Library's American Memory online presentation "I Do Solemnly Swear" offers a special look at Lincoln's second inauguration, including the handwritten text of the address, which is part of the Library's Abraham Lincoln Collection in the Manuscript Division. Visit Lincoln's second inaugural address, coming just a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, contained such stirring phrases as: "... With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds ..."

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division currently includes about 14 million photographs, drawings and prints from the 15th century to the present day. International in scope, these visual collections represent a uniquely rich fund of human experience, knowledge, creativity and achievement, touching on almost every realm of endeavor: science, art, invention, government, political struggle and the recording of history. For more information, visit

John Adams Miniseries

As March approaches I’m getting very excited about the HBO Films miniseries John Adams. Colin Callender, the president of HBO Films, describes the miniseries, based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning biography, as a moving love story, a gripping narrative and a facinating study of human nature.

Filming occurred in many different locations including Budapest, Hungary, but four locations in Virginia were also used including Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and locations around Richmond, Virginia.

An extensive list of the actors and the roles they will be playing are listed at the IMDB site including Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. David Morse will play George Washington, Tom Wilkinson will take on the role of Ben Franklin, and Stephen Dillane will play the part of Thomas Jefferson. Many of the features of the IMDB site are currently empty; however, there are already several interesting tidbits in the trivia section for the miniseries including the fact that many of the civilian costumes were previously used in British television productions. Many of the costumes were maked with the letters “BBC” on the interior. I think that’s kind of ironic!

In an interview with Paul Giamatti published at the website Rotten Tomatoes he states:

“[John Adams] was a weird guy. For people who come to these things expecting this sort of iconic, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, white, marble bust kind of thing. He was kind of a lunatic. He was a hypochondriac, he [had a] violent temper, he was constantly sticking his foot in his mouth. He was a nightmare of a guy.”

“He was this huge figure to people and there was a lot of weird political maneuvering around that went on. Hamilton and all those guys maneuvered around to get him elected. He was a terrible president. He was a terrible politician. So, we are making a thing about a guy who was basically a failure as a politician. So it will be interesting.”

“It’s much more a kind of political history because he sat the war out. There are no battle scenes in it. It’s all about him wandering around begging for money. I don’t know how interesting that will be, but that’s what he did the whole war. He kind of traveled around Europe trying to get people to give money to finance the war. And he was sick all the time and out of his mind and depressed. He was a really weird guy.”

Laura Linney prepared for her role by getting her hands on as many books as she could. She stated in an interview for Entertainment Weekly, “At the moment I’m steeped in books about [John Adams’] wife, Abigail Adams. I’ve read about five of them. There’s the McCullough [biography], and [McCullough’s] 1776, and the Joseph Ellis book, American Sphinx, which is about Thomas Jefferson. It’s coming out my pores, all this stuff. American history is wasted on high school sophomores. I remembered not a thing.”

When HBO Programming group president Michael Lombardo and co-president Richard Piepler traveled to show it to David McCullough, Piepler reported they had natural trepidation that you are showing it to the master, [but McCullough] had tears in his eyes.

I found all of the comments above interesting, however, if folks rely simply on Giamatti’s thoughts that Adams was weird, and he isn’t sure the miniseries will be interesting, they might opt to watch something else.

I just hope the tears Richard Piepler saw in David McCullough’s eyes were tears of joy and not anger and frustration.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Poll: Which American President was the most charismatic?

The poll has closed for the question "Which American President was the most charismatic?" Thank to all those who participated by voting.

JFK was the winner with 44%. President Reagan came in second with 20%. FDR was third with 18%. President Jackson was last with 16%.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Congratulations to Jennie and Ray Weber

Jennie Weber (Jennie W.) who blogs here at the American President Blog and her husband Ray are the proud new parents of Adam David Weber. Some pictures of the baby and happy family are up at Jennie's blog in the post We had the baby.

Congratulations Jennie and Ray.

And Jennie, in the next few months, whenever you feel like blogging, take a nap instead!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

President Carter and the Killer Rabbit

Jimmy Carter faced many problems when he was President of the United States of America. Problems such as a poor economy, hostages in Iran, and Billy Carter kept him busy. However, one that he (and the Secret Service) failed to anticipate was a vicious Georgia swamp rabbit.

The Straight Dope describes the incident, "The rabbit incident happened on April 20 while Carter was taking a few days off in Plains, Georgia. He was fishing from a canoe in a pond when he spotted the fateful rabbit swimming toward him. It was never precisely determined what the rabbit's problem was. Carter, always trying to look at things from the other guy's point of view, later speculated that it was fleeing a predator. Whatever the case, it was definitely a troubled rabbit. 'It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president,' a press account said. The Secret Service having been caught flatfooted--I'll grant you an amphibious rabbit assault is a tough thing to defend against--the president did what he could to protect himself. Initially it was reported that he had hit the rabbit with his paddle. Realizing this would not play well with the Rabbit Lovers Guild, Carter later clarified that he had merely splashed water at the rabbit, which then swam off toward shore. A White House photographer, ever alert to history's pivotal moments, snapped a picture of the encounter for posterity."

When Carter got back to the White House, his staff did not believe his rabbit attack story. Frustrated, Carter had the picture of the attack blown up to show everyone that he had indeed been approached by a violent bunny. Unfortunately, the story leaked. The press had a lot of fun with this incident.

Press Secretary Jody Powell wrote in his book The Other Side of the Story, "Upon closer inspection, the animal turned out to be a rabbit. Not one of your cutesy, Easter Bunny-type rabbits, but one of those big splay-footed things that we called swamp rabbits when I was growing up.The animal was clearly in distress, or perhaps berserk. The President confessed to having had limited experience with enraged rabbits. He was unable to reach a definite conclusion about its state of mind. What was obvious, however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat."

Fortunately for President Carter and the American nation, a rogue bunny has never again attacked Carter or any other American President.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Voting in the Michigan Primary

The 2008 Presidential election became real for me today. I voted in the Michigan Primary. I got up early as usual to go to work. I gave myself time to stop by the polling place first. It is at the same place my oldest son goes to school.

The poll worker asked me, "Which party?"

I responded, "Libertarian."

She blinked, looked annoyed and said, "Republican or Democrat?" Maybe I should not give the poll workers a hard time in the future?

I made my choice, took my ballot, and voted. I wore my "I voted" sticker all day. It is my hope that the college students coming into the library will see it and go vote too.

I called my wife at lunch time. She answered, "Oh, I thought you were another automated message from a candidate!"

There is a definite feel of excitement in the air today. I am not sure how heavy the turnout was but people talked about this primary all day long where I work. I bet this is how people in Iowa and New Hampshire felt too.

One of the big topics of conversation was that the Democratic candidates boycotted this state. Many Democrats I know were most vocal about this. As one person told me, "So, the Democratic candidates want change. Yet, they do whatever the Democratic Central Committee tells them and they avoid Michigan because we moved our vote up. Some change agents they are. More of the status quo..."

I wonder if this could come back to hurt the eventual Democratic nominee in November? Michigan is a state the Democrats will have to win and probably assume they will with minimal effort. I am not so sure. This is a conservative state with Detroit in the SE corner. Together, the state runs slightly liberal. If the Republican nominee runs ads pointing out how the Democratic nominee stiffed Michigan voters during the primary today, it may have an impact.

There is still a long way to go before the nominations are settled. I hope everyone who has a chance votes. And I hope both eventual nominees will make good American Presidents if elected.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh, Mother!

Teachers are forever throwing discussion bombs out into the middle of the classroom floor hoping to ignite some type of viable conversation to help students connect to prior knowledge, connect to new knowledge, and create even more questions for future lessons.

So, one day last year found me sitting on my classroom stool waiting for conversations to stop, papers to stop rustling, and 3-ring binders to stop their incessant clicking. I finally lobbed my discussion bomb. I direct students, “Tell me about a time your mother embarrassed you.” Instantly every hand in the room goes up including my own.

Parental embarrassment of any kind seems to be the great equalizer in a very diverse group of people including my young students. For the next several minutes I’m regaled with tales of mothers who like to show baby pictures (especially the naked type) to friends and family, mom’s who go out in public with curlers in their hair, and mom’s who laugh or talk too loud. In my own case my mother was notorious for taking up with virtual strangers in waiting rooms and grocery store lines, and in the course of five minutes she would be telling them all sorts of personal and private things about my sister and I while we looked on in horrified fashion.

I’m a huge embarrassment to my own children at times. I even know what it is I do to elicit the eyerolling and the exasperated exclamations of “Oh, Mother!”, but I can’t help myself. Perhaps it all stems from some type of hormone that is present during pregnancy and never goes away. At any rate it would seem that if there are children mothers who embarrass them are never far away.

Now I don’t merely bring up embarrassing mother stories just for the heck of it. I usually do it as an introduction to a read aloud I use in my classroom by Jean Fritz titled George Washington's Mother. It is a wonderfully researched tale of Mary Ball Washington and some of her interactions with her famous son especially those of the embarrassing kind. Students instantly connect to our first president as they realize they have something in common.

Recently I posted a painting for my wordless image at History Is Elementary by Jean Ferris titled Call of the Sea (1920). The subjects in the painting are George Washington at the age of 14 and Mary Ball Washington. He is looking out the window as he receives his mother’s decision that he cannot join the British Royal Navy. As I’ve proven many times here, here, and here bring up George Washington and you are sure to have a debate of some kind regarding fact and fiction, national legend versus verified history, and a view of history as it was presented in the 18th century versus 19th and 20th century presentations.

In his biography of George Washington titled Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith he makes a very valid point regarding Mary Ball Washington. Eighteenth century writers sanctified [her while more] modern writers have depicted her as Medea in a mob cap, grasping, possessive, envious to a fault. Willard Sterne Randall states in his biography titled George Washington: A Life [men like Parson Mason Weems and Rev. Jared Sparks] grafted and pruned facts to form a Washington myth [and] we owe them for the early deification of Mary Ball Washinton.

After looking over local lore, various scholarly biographies, and the letters of George Washington I would have to state Mary Ball Washington was not our typical idea of what a mother is or does. It does appear from the evidence that George Washington’s relationship with his mother was very formal and at times strained. I have no doubt that Mary Ball Washington could be a star in the Maternal Embarrassment Hall of Fame.

It is no secret that Mary Ball Washington was the second wife of Augustine Washington. He married her at 22 at a time most of her neighbors had written her off as a spinster. Randall wonders, Could it have been something so strong and indepependent about her that every suitor seemed to back away? Luckily for our nation Augustine Washington did not. Randall also mentions Mary Ball Washington’s step-grand daughter (the wife of Robert E. Lee) passed down the family tradition that Mrs. Washington required from those about her a prompt and literal obedience somewhat resembling that demanded by a proper military subordination.

Always of a mind that past events can be evidentiary in future actions I find it interesting that during Mary Ball Washington’s pregnancy with her son George a fierce thunderstorm arose during dinner and a guest was killed at the dinnertable from a strike of lightening. Margaret C. Conkling in her book Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington (1850) advises the force of the strike was so strong the knife and fork of the dinner guest was fused to her hand, and Mary Ball Washington felt the jolt of energy surge through her body as well. Throughout her pregancy she worried about the safety of her child. Could this be why she held such a firm hold on George and later felt so neglected and alone during his adult years?

Let us also not forget that Mary Ball Washington suddenly found herself a widow with several young children and as Jean Fritz’s book tells my students she suddenly felt poor. While not as aristocratic, as socially prominent, or as wealthy as families such as the Fairfax family, Mary Ball Washington was by no means destitute, but her security was suddenly very compromised by the death of her husband. Augustine Washington’s sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr. (Jack) inherited the bulk of the estate. Mary Ball Washington was promised an income for a period of five years from Ferry Farm prior to the property transferring to George Washington when he came of age, but she continuously worried about money.

Some historians have surmised that Lawrence Washington and his father in law, Lord Fairfax, took young George under their wings regarding his education in order to get him away from a very firm mother who did not want George to ever leave her side. Those same historians like to state that Augustine Washington enjoyed his job surveying the countryside mainly because it took him away from his wife for long periods of time.

The painting I used in my wordless post centers around an event that occurred on September 8, 1746 when George Washington met with his benefactor, Lord Fairfax, to receive two letters from Lawrence Washington. One letter was for George and the other was a letter for Mrs. Washington asking her to allow her son to join the British Royal Navy. My students learn from my read aloud using George Washington’s Mother that young George’s mother did exactly what any mother would do. She stalled for time hoping the ship would leave without her son, and she also wrote her bother, Joseph Ball, who had returned to Britain some years earlier. When she finally did hear from her brother he advised her that her since her son was a middle son and had no further prospects of inheriting additional property he would be better off keeping his Virginia contacts, taking over Ferry Farm at the prescribed time, and try to make it as a planter. Joseph Ball advised his sister that without the proper patronage and contact the Royal Navy would be a very unkind place for young George to be saying that the Royal Navy could cut him and staple him and use him like a Negro, or rather, life a dog.. After reading her brother’s letter that was the end of any hopes George Washington had for naval career. Joseph Ball’s letter is quoted in the seventh volume of Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of George Washington (Scribners, 1948-1957). Of course, we now know that George Washington did very well as a soldier, used his planter contacts, and upon the death of Lawrence Washington inherited Mount Vernon as well, but young Washington did not know this at the time and his mother's decision was very upsetting to him.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of events that caused George Washington great embarrassment where his mother was concerned.

In 1755 while at Fort Cumberland in the Ohio wilderness a message from his mother arrived via a family friend who had been enlisted to deliver it. Mary Ball Washington requested her son find her a “Dutchman” meaning an indentured servant to help her run the farm. She also requested her son send her some butter.


So while the future Father of our County was off nearly getting killed in the Ohio Wilderness he had to write his mother we are quite out of that part of the country where either are to be had. There are few and no inhabitants where we now lie encamped and butter cannot be had here to supply the wants of the camp…. From the papers of George Washington you can see the letter here.

In an article titled Washington and His Mother by Frederick Bernays Weiner published in the American Historical Review (1991, 26, vol. 3) an episode is recounted where Mary Ball Washington petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates (formally the House of Burgesses) for a state pension. She also indicated she needed to have her taxes lowered and claimed she was destitute. Benjamin Harrison, speaker of the House of Delegates, promptly sent a message to General Washington advising him of his mother’s petition.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to state George Washington was shocked and surprised. Weiner states he was outraged and promptly answered Harrison’s message explaining he regularly sent money to his mother and whence her distress arise therefore, I know not, never having received any complaint of inattention or neglect.

It also didn’t help that throughout the Revolution Mary Ball Washington was a staunch loyalist. Randall states only George Washington’s stature protected her from being driven out of the community by resentful neighbors.

Randall mentions there is no evidence George Washington wrote his mother at all during the Revolution but he did see to it that she had received an annuity and all her living expenses were paid by Lund, his farm manager. Eventually George Washington bought his mother a home in Fredericksburg where she lived until her death.

At one point in 1787 Mary Ball Washington actually requested to live at Mt. Vernon but Randall contends George Washington refused and references a February 15th letter he wrote in response….you would not be able to enjoy that calmness and serenity of mind which in my opinion you ought now to prefer to every other consideration.

In another letter to Richard Conway, George Washington correctly predicts his stopover in Fredericksburg in the Spring of 1789 would be the last time he would see his mother alive. Randall refers to Washington relating his reason for the visit as [an effort] to discharge the last act of personal duty I may ever have it in my power to pay my mother.

Randall also relates a local legend that when Washington arrived Mary Ball Washington continued to work in a flowerbed while the soon-to-be-inaugurated President attempted to engage her in conversation.

After reading the read aloud to students by Jean Fritz we discuss possible reasons for Mary Ball Washington's actions throughout George's life and students begin to see that in her own way she probably cared for her son and was proud of him. Later I ask students to remember their own embarrassment story about their own mother, and I ask them to write an essay regarding why their mother acts the way she does at times. It's always very interesting to see how students begin to understand and justify their mother's actions.

Barbara Bush’s Most Unusual Present

I happened to see a picture of a mismatched pair of Keds that belonged to Barbara Bush awhile ago (not on the Internet, unfortunately, but you can read about the exhibit they were part of at the New York Times – the entire exhibit is actually really neat). This, of course, aroused my curiosity to find the story behind these shoes for you all.

You can find the story of these shoes in her memoirs, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (available through Google Books):
…George gave me the most unusual present. I had mentioned in passing that although there were hundreds of different kinds of athletic shoes, it was really hard to buy Keds, the old-fashioned sneaker. The next time I’m going to say diamonds, for on my birthday George dragged in a bag of twenty-four different styles, colors, and patterns of Keds. He had written the company president and asked him to send what he had. So, just to tease George, I divided them into three lots for Camp David, Kennebunkport, and the White House, but did not match up the pairs. So I now wear the purple with the black or the pink with the orange, and so on. I love watching the children’s faces as they poke their mothers and point. (pg. 300).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Poll: Which American President has the hardest to spell name?

The poll has closed for the question, "Which American President has the hardest to spell name?" Thanks to all who voted.

It turns out that not only is President Buchanan considered the worst President ever, he also has the hardest to spell name! He won handily with 53% of the vote. Ike came in second with 32%. Fillmore got third with 10% and Arthur came in last with 3%.

I could try this question in reverse for a future poll. However, picking between Bush, Ford, Adams, and Polk for easiest to spell name seems a bit hard.

Friday, January 11, 2008

LibraryThing: Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson has a profile up at LibraryThing! This website description notes, "Enter what you're reading or your whole library—it's an easy, library-quality catalog. LibraryThing also connects you with people who read the same things."

Jefferson's profile gives and annotated and completely searchable version of the 4,889 books he donated to the Library of Congress. Do you and President Jefferson have any book in common?

From the site:

My library has been cataloged by helpful Thingamabrarii from the "I See Dead People['s Books]" group. The 6,487 volumes (c. 4,889 titles) included here are those I sold to the Library of Congress in 1815 for $23,950.

A fully annotated version of my library is available here. This is the digital version of The Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, a five-volume scholarly bibliography compiled by E. Millicent Sowerby and published by the Library of Congress, 1952-1959.

One of Sowerby's major sources was my own handwritten library catalogue, begun in 1783 and continuously amended through 1814. Now at the Massachusetts Historical Society, that catalogue is available online, here.

When my library was sold to Congress, I sent along a manuscript catalogue presenting the books in a particular order, which I described to the Librarian of Congress as "sometimes analytical, sometimes chronological, & sometimes a combination of both." Unfortunately, that catalogue was retained by Mr. George Watterston when his tenure as Librarian ended in 1829, and has not been found.In the 1980s, librarians James Gilreath (Library of Congress) and Douglas Wilson (Knox College) discovered a manuscript catalogue of the collection - with the books in the order I preferred - created for me by a young gentleman named Nicholas Trist in 1823. This list, published by the Library of Congress in 1989 as Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog With the Entries in His Own Order is available in digital form, here. The notation for each title from this list can be found in the Comments section.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Irish Presidents

If you ask most people which President had Irish ancestry, you get one quick answer - JFK. But according to the Directory of Irish Genealogy, there are 15 others, including our current President:
  • Andrew Jackson
  • James Knox Polk
  • James Buchanan
  • Ulysses S Grant
  • Chester Alan Arthur
  • Grover Cleveland
  • William McKinley
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson
  • Richard Milhous Nixon
  • James Earl Carter
  • Ronald Wilson Reagan
  • George Herbert Walker Bush
  • William Jefferson Clinton
  • George W Bush

This page also gives some background on the genealogical questions surrounding some of the recent president's Irish ancestry.

To go with this, you can read a USA Today article on Bush's Irish link. That article actually only says there are 11 presidents with Irish ancestry, so believe who you choose.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Millard Fillmore's Boyhood Experiences

I found an 1903 article from the New York Times (it is available for free as PDF) that tells (and quotes) a letter that Millard Fillmore wrote to a friend about his childhood. I found this a fascinating ancedote on this oft-overlooked president. The letter talks about his childhood in East Sparta (Western New York). Fillmore writes about being apprenticed at 12 and how he had wanted to go fight in the War of 1812 instead (his father had rejected that idea). He then talks about how he found his apprenticeship at first useless as he was given all types of menial jobs, but he insisted on being properly trained and got his way. Fillmore also recalls a story about raffling a turkey and how after that, he never gambled again as well as some other ancedotes in the short portions the article quotes or mentions.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Nixon and Elvis

I was surfing around the National Archives homepage and found an online exhibit on the meeting between Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Nixon and Elvis met in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970. The exhibit includes Elvis' letter to the President (I found his handwriting very sloppy actually), information on the preparations, pictures from the meeting and Nixon's follow up letter to Elvis. It also has lots of downloads - you can set up your background to many of the photographs if you so desire (no, I didn't).

Monday, January 07, 2008

1852 Democratic National Convention

Since I posted a complete proceedings of a Republican National Convention, I found a Democratic National Convention to also post (again from Google Book). The 1852 Democratic National Convention resulted in the nomination of Franklin Pierce (and of course his eventual election to the Presidency). The convention was held in Baltimore from June 1-5, 1852. It took 49 ballots to agree on Pierce as the Democratic candidate. As you can see from the different votes, there were a lot of candidates and the numbers were all over the place. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Poll: Which President has the most impressive memorial in Washington, DC?

The poll has closed for "Which President has the most impressive memorial in Washington, DC?" Thanks to all who voted.

There was a clear winner. Abraham Lincoln received 50% of the vote. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson each got 17%. FDR and JFK each got 7%.

Thanks to the Tour Marm for the question.

Friday, January 04, 2008

1876 Republican National Convention

I was looking around some more at past conventions after I posted yesterday about the 1968 Democratic convention and found on Google Book Search the complete proceedings of the 1876 Republican National Convention. The 1876 convention was held in Cincinnati and resulted in the nomination of Rutherford B. Hayes (who as you all know won the presidency after a very disputed election).

Hayes was first nominated by Edward Noyes of Ohio (Hayes was also from Ohio if you remember and a past governor of that state). You can read the speech - it is very laudatory, as expected. There were also several seconding speeches from other states. Other candidates (this link is for another site that summarizes from the nominees, but you can read all the nominating and seconding speeches in the original proceedings, of course) for the Republican ticket in 1876 were James Blaine, Benjamin Bristow, Roscoe Conkling, John Hartranft, Marshall Jewell, and Oliver Morton. It took to the seventh ballot for Hayes to get a majority and if you track the procedure (there is a complete state by state vote break down for each and every vote), you can see that Hayes only won on that ballot - he was significantly behind on all the others. Blaine was ahead through most of the proceedings, but as other candidates realized they had no chance, allegiances were switched and Hayes ended up with the nomination.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Presidential Primaries

Since the primaries are the hot topic in the news right now, I thought I'd provide some history to go with them.

Wikipedia provides a nice summary of the history leading to the current method of primary elections:
There is no provision for the role of political parties in the United States Constitution, as political parties did not develop until the early 19th century. Before 1820, Democratic-Republican members of Congress would nominate a single candidate from their party. That system collapsed in 1824, and by 1832 the preferred mechanism for nomination was a national convention.[13]

Delegates to the national convention were usually selected at state conventions whose own delegates were chosen by district conventions. Sometimes they were dominated by intrigue between political bosses who controlled delegates; the national convention was far from democratic or transparent. Progressive Era reformers looked to the primary election as a way to measure popular opinion of candidates, as opposed to the opinion of the bosses. In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential preference primary in which the delegates to the National Convention were required to support the winner of the primary at the convention. By 1912, twelve states either selected delegates in primaries, used a preferential primary, or both. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries, but some went back and from 1936 to 1968, 13 or 14 states used them. (Ware p 248)

The primary received its first major test in the 1912 election pitting incumbent President William Howard Taft against challengers Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. Roosevelt proved the most popular candidate, but as most primaries were non-binding "preference" shows and held in only fourteen of the-then forty-eight states, the Republican nomination went to Taft, who controlled the convention.

Seeking to boost voter turnout, New Hampshire simplified its ballot access laws in 1949. In the ensuing "beauty contest" of 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated his broad voter appeal by out polling the favored Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican." Also, Democrat Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman, leading the latter to abandon his campaign for another term.[14] The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary has since become a widely-observed test of candidates' viability.

The impetus for national adoption of the binding primary election was the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey II secured the nomination despite primary victories and other shows of support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Humphrey on a strong anti-Vietnam War platform. After this, a Democratic National Committee-commissioned panel led by Senator George McGovern recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider participation. A large number of states, faced with the need to conform to more detailed rules for the selection of national delegates, chose a presidential primary as an easier way to come into compliance with the new national Democratic Party rules. The result was that many more future delegates would be selected by a state presidential primary. The Republicans also adopted many more state presidential primaries.

With the broadened use of the primary system, states have tried to increase their influence in the nomination process. One tactic has been to create geographic blocs to encourage candidates to spend time in a region. Vermont and Massachusetts attempted to stage a joint New England primary on the first Tuesday of March, but New Hampshire refused to participate so it could retain its traditional place as the first primary. The first successful regional primary was Super Tuesday of March 8, 1988, in which nine Southern states united in the hope that the Democrats would select a candidate in line with Southern interests.[15]

Another trend is to stage earlier and earlier primaries, given impetus by Super Tuesday and the mid-1990s move (since repealed) of the California primary and its bloc of votes—the largest in the nation—from June to March. In order to retain its tradition as the first primary in the country (and adhere to a state law which requires it to be), New Hampshire's primary has moved forward steadily, from early March to early January.

You can also read a nice history at the American Presidency. If you'd like to see the results of the last few primary elections, you can use Dave Leip's Atlas of Presidential Elections (this only goes back to 2000).

Now the Wikipedia mentions the "chaotic" 1968 Democratic convention and you can a first hand report of this event on PBS's site (this is definitely an interesting read).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year's!

Hope everyone has a happy and safe 2008! For something related, read this 1913 NYT article for President Wilson's plans to call off New Year's reception for 1914.