Archive for February, 2013

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #7

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

“Man is the measure of all things” – Protagoras

Says a man.

Black History / President Month: Our Black Presidents

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

It’s Black History Month, and also the month in which we celebrate our presidents on Presidents Day. So throughout February on the PhLog, we’re publishing a few posts about Black History as it pertains to our presidents.

Today’s post is about our black presidents.

We all know that Barack Obama is the first African-American president of the United States.

Or is he?

There have been rumors throughout US history that certain presidents had black heritage. Most of these claims were made by political opponents who were trying to cause a scandal. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Harding were all called black by their enemies.

Each of these claims are unverified and considered untrue by historians.

But there’s been one rumor about a president thought to be black that that keeps coming back: Calvin Coolidge.

Was Silent Cal silent about his true ancestry?

Coolidge was open about his Native American ancestry, which he attributed his dark features to. But was that the whole story?*


Calvin Coolidge: Passing?

*there is no historical evidence stating the contrary, but this is the internet so we’re allowed to spread unfounded rumors.

Black History / President Month: Black Presidential Candidates

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

It’s Black History Month, and also the month in which we celebrate our presidents on Presidents Day. So throughout February on the PhLog, we’re publishing a few posts about Black History as it pertains to our presidents.

Today’s post is about African Americans who ran for president.

Before Barack Obama, several African Americans unsuccessfully ran for president. Some received the nomination of minor parties, others tried for major party support and failed.

The first black candidate to appear on a presidential ticket was Frederick Douglass, but as VP rather than president. In 1872, Douglass ran alongside a woman – suffragist leader Victoria Woodhull. And in 1888, Douglass became the first black man to receive a vote for president at a major party convention (the Republicans).

In the many years that followed, a slew of African Americans ran on various fringe party tickets. George Edwin Taylor ran in 1904. Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory in 1968.

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major party. A Democtatic member of U.S. House of Representatives, Chisholm failed to win the nomination, but she did get the most votes for a female candidate at a major party convention in U.S. history.


Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. He failed to win, but he was quite a popular candidate in 1988, winning many primaries before losing to Michael Dukakis.

In 1988, Psychologist and activist Lenora Fulani was the first African American presidential candidate (and the first woman) to appear on ballots in all 50 states, under the New Alliance Party banner.

And then in 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American major party nominee and was elected president.

Black History / President Month: The Roosevelt-Washington Dinner

Monday, February 11th, 2013

It’s Black History Month, and also the month in which we celebrate our presidents on Presidents Day. So over the next few weeks on the PhLog, we’re publishing a few posts about Black History as it pertains to our presidents.

Today’s entry is about a remarkable event between President Theodore Roosevelt and African-American activist, author, and educator, Booker T. Washington.

Roosevelt had a close relationship with Booker T. Washington. Throughout his presidency, he consulted Washington on a number of matters, such as on appointing judges in Southern states.

On October 16, 1901, Roosevelt went so far as to invite his friend and advisor to dinner with his family at the White House.

At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal. After all, African-Americans built the White House. Notable African-Americans from Fredrick Douglass onwards had met with presidents at the White House on a regular basis, but it was not until October 16, 1901, that one had been allowed to dine there.

And at the time, segregation was law. As Roosevelt was about to extend the invitation, he hesitated, then was so ashamed at his hesitation that he sent the invitation immediately.

Washington understood the significance of the offer. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to face the consequences of what would follow, but really had no choice. He couldn’t turn down the president.

The day after the dinner, when the story was leaked, all hell broke loose.

Newspapers and public officials excoriated Roosevelt. Vicious racist attacks were launched on both of them. The fact that an African-American was treated as an equal at a meal with a President (and his wife!) was too much for much of the country to handle.

An assassin was hired to kill Washington. Threats were made against Roosevelt. Former president Grover Cleveland sent an angry letter to the House of Representatives.


But liberals and African-Americans praised the two for their bravery and marked the event as a significant moment in American history. Scott Joplin used the dinner as the topic of his first opera, now lost. And in 2008, Senator John McCain would note this milestone dinner between Washington and Roosevelt in his concession speech to an African American president-elect. Who, presumably, can comfortably eat a meal any time he wants to at the White House without protest.

It’s Black History / President Month!

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It’s February, which is Black History Month in the US, and it’s also the month in which we honor our presidents on Presidents’ Day.

In honor of this confluence of events, we’re writing a series of posts this month about black history as it pertains to our presidents.

Let’s start with an easy one.

Which US Presidents owned slaves?

1. George Washington


Slavery was with us from the very beginning. Many of the founding fathers were slave-holders. George Washington was no exception.

Washington owned over 200 slaves in his lifetime, inheriting his first ten slaves at age eleven. However, later in life, Washington expressed strong support for the abolition of slavery, and he was the only major founding father to free his slaves upon his death. Although as President, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act and sent money and weapons to defeat the slave rebellion in Haiti. Nobody’s perfect.

2. Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson had a problematic relationship with slavery, to say the least. He owned hundreds of slaves, yet was an opponent of the slave trade. But he was also against the practice of masters freeing their slaves because he thought it would make slave uprisings more likely.

And then there was Sally Hemings, the slave with whom Jefferson had several children. Eventually Jefferson allowed her to “escape,” but he kept his other slaves his entire life, and they were sold upon his death to settle his numerous debts.

3. James Madison


James Madison was strongly opposed to slavery, believing that slavery was bad both for the slaves and their masters. Still, he owned slaves his entire life, so you have to take that with a grain of salt. Later in life he became the president of the American Colonization Society, which moved free blacks to Africa.

Madison brought Paul Jennings, a slave, to work as his personal servant in the White House.  Jennings is noted for writing the first White House memoir after he bought his freedom from Daniel Webster in 1845.

4. James Monroe


James Monroe owned dozens of slaves, and like his predecessors, brought slaves to Washington with him.

Monroe considered slavery to be a blight inherited from the country’s former colonial masters and proposed that his home state of Virginia emancipate and deport its slaves. He was also a supporter of the American Colonization Society, and the capital of Liberia, where freed slaves were eventually resettled to, was named Monrovia in his honor.

5. Andrew Jackson


Andrew Jackson was a wealthy slaveholder. He bought his first slave, a young woman, in 1788, and eventually became a slave trader himself. He owned over 150 slaves at the time of his death. Slaves were in fact the source of Jackson’s wealth; unlike other early presidents, he acquired his wealth through the exploitation of slaves and slave labor. Also, unlike his predecessors, Jackson didn’t appear to have any problem with slavery.

6. Martin Van Buren


Van Buren was a defender of slavery as constitutionally sanctioned and was inflexible and uncompromising of his support in continuing the institution.

Once he was out of office, however, Van Buren was considered an abolitionist, and was the candidate for president of the Free-Soil Party. Although his argument against slavery was that white labor couldn’t compete with enslaved black labor, rather than the fact that human beings should not be enslaved.

Van Buren’s family owned several slaves, and as a young man he owned a slave named Tom. Tom escaped, and rather than reclaim him, Van Buren sold him to the man who captured him for $50. He did not own slaves while in the White House.

7. William Henry Harrison


Harrison was our first Whig president, the one with the shortest term (32 days), the first president to die in office, the only president whose grandson also was elected president, and the oldest person elected to the office until Ronald Reagan. And he owned slaves.

Harrison was considered to be a bit of a moderate on the slavery issue, and brought his slaves to states where they could become indentured servants and could eventually “earn” their freedom.

Harrison had six children with one of his slaves, and was the great-grandfather of civil rights activist and NAACP president Walter Francis White.

8. John Tyler


Tyler came from a slaveholding family and inherited 13 slaves upon his father’s death. He remained a slaveholder his entire life. He was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy when the Civil War began, and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives.

Tyler had 15 children – more than any president – and allegedly fathered a 16th with one of his slaves.

9. James K. Polk


Polk was a slaveholder throughout his life. His will stipulated that his slaves would be freed after the death of his wife, but the Emancipation Proclamation beat her to it; otherwise his slaves wouldn’t have been freed until his wife’s death in 1891.

10. Zachary Taylor


Taylor wasn’t the last slaveholding president, but he was the last person to hold slaves while serving in the office.

Taylor owned 100 slaves while running for the presidency, and this was considered to be a political asset in courting the Southern vote. Although as president, he angered Southerners with his consistently moderate positions on slavery. When secession threatened, Taylor vowed to personally head the army and hang any rebels. The threat helped stave off civil war for a few years, but in one of those twists of history, his daughter married Jefferson Davis, and his son would become a Confederate General.

11. Andrew Johnson


Andrew Johnson owned eight slaves. Born into poverty, he bought his first slave when he was a state senator and moving up the world. He wasn’t for emancipation during the Civil War, and when he was military governor of Tennessee, he convinced Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation.

And let’s face it – Johnson was an incompetent racist and probably the worst president the US ever had. He certainly was the worst person for the job at the time in which he was thrust into that office.

Still, Johnson was considered to be a very kind slave owner, and he told Frederick Douglass that he never sold a slave. But he didn’t free his slaves – they were confiscated by the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out and Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee by Lincoln in 1862. In any case, late in life he was on very good terms with some of his former slaves.

12. Ulysses S. Grant


Ulysses S. Grant was the last U.S. President to have owned a slave.

Wait – Grant? The Union hero of the Civil War?

Grant’s wife Julia Dent was the daughter of a slave owner, and Grant used his father-in-law’s slaves on one of their family farms in Missouri. Julia’s father gave Grant a slave named William Jones. But Grant was a failure at farming, and ultimately had no use for a slave. Grant freed William Jones, rather than selling him, although he was in desperate need of money at the time.

That’s a total of 12 slave-owning presidents, more than one-quarter of all US presidents. Notable early non-slave-owning presidents were John Adams and his son John Quncy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce.