Posts Tagged ‘American History’

Know Your VPs: John Nance Carter

Friday, February 24th, 2017

This month, we’re profiling a few of the many men who have sat around waiting for the President to die or quit so that he could have his own day in the sun.

Today’s post is about John Nance Carter (1868-1967), aka “Cactus Jack,” the 32nd Vice President of the United States, who served two terms under Franklin Roosevelt.

Carter was a rough-and-tumble Texas politician who rose to Speaker of the House before running for the Democratic nomination for President in 1932. He cut a deal to become FDR’s running mate at the convention when it became clear that Roosevelt was the front runner, but still needed votes to gain the nomination.

Carter has been described as charming and folksy. He was also called “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man” – and that by a fellow Democrat.

Carter served two terms as FDR’s Vice President, and is most famous not for anything he did as VP, but for a phrase he used to describe his job: “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” (FDR wasn’t a man to share the limelight.)

Carter fell out with FDR for various reasons, especially over FDR’s ill-fated plan to pack the Supreme Court with additional judges. Carter declared his own candidacy for president in 1940, and the rest is history, as in “not much history for Garner.”

Carter retired after his second term with FDR, but he was consulted by politicians such as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Carter was our longest-living VP, nearly making it to age 99!

Know Your VPs: John C. Breckinridge

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

This month, we’re profiling a few of the many men who have sat around waiting for the President to die or quit so that he could have his own day in the sun.

Today we’re writing about John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875), the 14th, and, at 36, the youngest Vice President in American history. He had the honor of being VP to one of the worst presidents: James Buchanan.

After Buchanan’s term, Breckinridge unsuccessfully ran for president in 1860 as a Southern Democrat. He finished a distant third behind Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, an old friend who was married to Breckinridge’s cousin Mary Todd.

Breckinridge returned to the Senate, but joined the Confederate army once the Civil War started. Thus Breckinridge had the unique distinction of being the only U.S. Senator to be convicted of treason.

He also had the distinction of serving in administrations of both the USA and CSA. Breckinridge rose through the ranks of the Confederate government to become Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of War, and presided over the surrender of the Confederacy.

After years in exile, Breckinridge returned to his native Kentucky, where he resisted calls from many, many people – including Ulysses S. Grant – to return to public life. From his retirement, he did use his lingering political influence to publicly denounce the KKK and support passage of a Kentucky statute allowing black people to testify against white people in court. That kind of makes up for the treason.

Know Your VPs: William King

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

This month, we’re profiling a few of the many men who have sat around waiting for the President to die or quit so that he could have his own day in the sun.

William Rufus King (1786-1853), our 13th Vice President (under President Franklin Pierce), was the highest-ranking Alabamian in US politics. He also had one of the shortest terms of any VP, dying of tuberculosis just 25 days after inauguration. King was so ill he had to be sworn in on foreign soil (he was in Cuba for a health cure).

Needless to say, he was not able to carry out many of his VP duties before he died. That might not have been a bad thing.

King served in the Senate for more than 30 years and was regarded as a steady, if second-rate, Senator. His was no blazing intellect. He had no gift for oratory when our nation passionately debated slavery, secession, and other matters of life-and-death import. King was known as a “moderate Unionist” (as if that’s somehow commensurate with owning slaves).

In the 1830s, King was arrested with fellow Senator Henry Clay for nearly dueling, but his career was uninspiring. King once vowed to act “mildly, but firmly, and I trust impartially. . . . Should I err, I look to my brother Senators, in a spirit of kindness, to correct my errors.” He didn’t leave much of a legacy.

We remember William Rufus King – when we remember him at all – because he was most likely our first gay Vice President. Throughout his life, whispers trailed him – most pointedly around his friendship with James Buchanan. The two had a close relationship, attended social functions, and lived together for 10 years. The wags of their time dubbed them the “Siamese Twins.” Andrew Jackson (classy man that he was), referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” King and Buchanan planned to run together for president and vice president, but it was never to be.

A few years after King’s death, Buchanan became the 15th president of the United States. (And, according to pretty much everybody, he was one of our worst. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Although he may not have been our greatest VPOTUS, William King showed himself to be loyal to his partner: after King died, Buchanan called him “among the best, the purest and most consistent public men I have known.”

Know Your VPs: Richard Mentor Johnson

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

This month, we’re profiling a few of the many men who have sat around waiting for the President to die or quit so that he could have his own day in the sun.

Today’s post is on Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850), the 9th Vice President of the U. S., serving under Martin Van Buren.

Johnson was our first VP with the last name Johnson! So far, there have been two more.

Johnson was a member of the House of Representatives, and later the Senate. Some people said that Johnson personally killed the Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. He didn’t deny it, and allowed rumor to burnish his political reputation.

Johnson was nominated for VP on the Democratic ticket with Van Buren in 1836, and ran under what must be the lamest political slogan in U.S. history: “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”

The electorate is nothing if not silly, and the nursery rhyme worked: Johnson and Van Buren were elected, though Johnson needed the Senate to seal the deal because he was one electoral vote short.

Why didn’t Johnson win outright? He lived in a time when the details of your personal life could get in the way of high office and came under scrutiny for his relationship with a black woman. Unlike your average black-mistress-having white political leader (looking at you here, 1st Vice President of the U. S. Jefferson), Johnson treated Chinn as his wife and acknowledged their two daughters as his own.

Oh, and Johnson’s common law wife, Julia Chinn, was not only black, she was a slave.

She was actually his slave. Johnson had inherited her. Though he could have freed Chinn, things were complicated. (Fun fact: she would have had to leave the state.) Though he could have married her, things were complicated. (Fun fact: whites could not marry blacks in Kentucky until the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia in 1967.)

After Chinn died in 1833, Johnson began a relationship with another family slave. When she left him for another man, he sold her, and then started sleeping with her sister.

And you thought today’s politicians were creepy…

Johnson just couldn’t shake public condemnation – about openly living with black women, not about being a total bounder and a cur for owning people and then sleeping with them – and he was dumped from the ticket in 1840.

He spent the rest of his life running a tavern, running a farm, and running for office. He died just two weeks into his last term in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

At his death, his mixed-race children were ruled illegitimate, and his brothers split his estate.

Jerks.

Know Your VPs: Elbridge Gerry

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

This world is filled with many wonders, including creatures that wait and bide their time, waiting for the first sign of weakness or death. Then they swoop into action.

We’re not speaking of vultures here.

We’re speaking of vice presidents.

This month, we’re profiling a few of the many men who have waited for the President to fall in order to have their day in the sun. Most didn’t get a chance to do much. But they all have stories.

Today’s guest VP and bona-fide Founding father is Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), the 5th Vice President of the United States.

Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, but famously refused to sign the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention because it didn’t yet include a bill of rights. He was caught up in the XYZ scandal during the Adams administration, served as a Congressman, and was elected 9th Governor of Massachusetts before becoming James Madison’s Vice President. He died a year and a half into his term.


Gerry’s greatest legacy is the term that bears his name: the “gerrymander.” As governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed legislation to redistrict his state so the ruling party could consolidate control. The borders of one district in Essex County were thought to resemble the shape of a salamander – hence the term “gerry-mander.”

It’s unfortunate that Gerry’s reputation is tarnished with a dubious political practice. After all, he signed the legislation only reluctantly and it led to his defeat in the next election.

Gerry was a vocal advocate of individual freedom, and described as one of “the two most impartial men in America” by John Adams (who implied he, himself, was the other. But he was probably a little partial.)

Gerry also had 10 children, of which 7 survived into adulthood. So although he didn’t leave a legacy as a VP, he was at least productive.

UPG Salutes Vice Presidents!

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

President’s Day is in February, but where is the day that honors their Partners in Chief?

Once they join the ticket – to bring in those extra votes the presidential candidate could not attract alone – Vice Presidents are almost always ignored, shunted aside, forgotten. UPG says NO MORE!

This month, we’ll be profiling a few of the many men who have sat around waiting for the President to die or quit so that he could have his own day in the sun. Most of them never rose to any real power. But they all have stories.

To start this off, here are some interesting facts about our Vice Presidents:

-Seven VPs have died in office.

-Fourteen VPs have gone on to become President: nine upon the death or resignation of the president, five by election.

-The office has often been vacant due to the death or resignation of a VP, or a VP’s ascendance to the presidency. In fact, the office has been vacant for nearly a total of 40 years and people tended not to notice.

-Two men served as VPs to two different presidents: George Clinton for Jefferson and Madison; John C. Calhoun for John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. (Calhoun actually ran with Jackson on the ticket against Adams’ re-election. Talk about ungrateful!)

-Four VPs were replaced when a president ran for another term (2 of them by FDR).

-New York is home to the most VPs (11) and Indiana gave us 5, including our current VP.

Look for more posts about our Also-Rans / Also-Wons this month…

A Man (Not) of His Time

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

On August 30, 1791, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Banneker, who had written on August 19th, calling on Jefferson to live up to his principles and support political liberty for black Americans.

Jefferson seemed to wish slavery would eventually die out, but he was of the opinion whites were superior. His letter was short. It was friendly on the surface. And it turned out to be a classic example of his distressing inability to seal the deal when it came to the ideals, ethics, and promise of the Declaration of Independence.

As for Banneker, he wasn’t some obscure citizen. He was then known – and still is best-known – for surveying the borders of the land that would become the District of Columbia and our nation’s capitol.

Banneker was a civil engineer, scientist, farmer, and author of almanacs. At first blush, Banneker would seem to be the sort of Founding Father our nation needed. He was a polymath such as Benjamin Franklin (fellow scientist, inventor, and “Almanack” author), John Adams (lawyer, farmer, diplomat), and Alexander Hamilton (economist, liberty enthusiast, failed duelist, subject of at least one musical) – all of whom would have taken Banneker’s side.

In fact, along with his letter, Banneker gave examples of his work: he enclosed a copy of his astronomical almanac, and mentioned his profession as a surveyor to prove that, contrary to Jefferson’s writings, black people did not innately lack intellectual ability and the capacity for great achievement when not oppressed by slavery.

Banneker, who was was black and free, encouraged Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us,” and chastised the founders for their untenable hypocrisy in “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.”

Jefferson’s reaction, besides being essentially monstrous, is a little embarrassing. His letter is a faint cordial response that does not deign to directly address slavery. What’s more, Jefferson later slagged Banneker off to another correspondent as having “a mind of very common stature indeed,” contrary to the evidence – not to mention truths self-evident.

One might say that Jefferson was a man of his time, except that at least 700 people Jefferson knew – those he bought and owned and sold – were also of their time, and they were more intimately acquainted with truths.

Benjamin Banneker was not a man ahead of his time.

Benjamin_Banneker_woodcut,_age_64

People You Should Know: Carl Schurz

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

442px-Carl-Schurz

Carl Schurz lived through a remarkable time in history and lived a remarkable life. He was born into a feudal system in Germany in 1829 – his grandfather was a tenant farmer on the lands of a castle. Taught by his father to revere George Washington and other free-thinkers, Schurz was studying history and philology when he became swept up in the democratic revolutions of 1848. Those revolutions didn’t turn out well, so Schurz escaped to Switzerland, London, and then New York. But first he snuck back into Germany to rescue his mentor, Gottfried Kinkel.

In the U. S., Schurz became active among the growing German-American community. He settled in Wisconsin, became a lawyer, and began speaking at election rallies. An abolitionist, Schurz was an early backer of Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for president, and was a delegate at the 1860 Republican convention.

When Lincoln won the presidency, he appointed Schurz, a 31-year-old immigrant, ambassador to Spain. But two years later, when the Civil War was going poorly for the Union, Schurz resigned to enter the Union army. He served as a major-general and took part in the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga.

Schurz continued his public service after the war, touring the South for President Andrew Johnson, who ignored Schurz’s requests to fully support civil rights for freed slaves.

Schurz then became a journalist, editor, and newspaper owner.

To recap: up to this point in his life, Schurz had been a revolutionary, a political insider, an ambassador, a major-general, and was now a journalist and newspaper owner. And he was just 37.

And there was more to come. In 1869, Carl Schurz became the first German-American elected to the U. S. Senate, where he represented Missouri until 1875. Dismayed by the corruption in Grant’s administration – as well as his abandonment of former slaves and tenant farmers (like Schurz’s own grandfather) – Schurz helped organize the Liberal Republican Party to oppose Grant’s renomination.

President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Schurz as the Secretary of the Interior, where he promoted civil-service reform, conservation (he was the first conservationist to hold a cabinet post), and humane treatment of Native Americans.

After Hayes’ presidency, Schurz continued his support of honest government as an organizer of the Mugwumps, breaking with the corrupt Republicans and supporting the election of Democratic President Grover Cleveland. He also returned to journalism, editing the New York Evening Post and The Nation and writing for Harper’s Weekly.

Schurz died in New York City in 1906, and is interred in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Like many active public servants, no matter how noble, Schurz’s name is a hazy memory. But you can see traces of our high regard: there is a park named after him in New York City, a high school in Chicago, and a memorial dedicated to him in his home town in Germany.

Schurz’s most famous quote has been bowdlerized by lesser lights and made to represent the opposite of his noble sentiment. Let’s take a moment to appreciate his statement as entered into the Congressional Record: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

800px-DBP_1976_895_Unabhängigkeit_USA_Carl_Schurz

Shared Birthdays: Emma Goldman and Helen Keller

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Two activists, one birthday! Emma Goldman was born on June 27, 1869 and Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880.

young-keller-goldman

Keller and Goldman as young ladies

Here are some facts about these two women:

Emma Goldman’s father was an abusive man who tried to marry her off at age 15.
Helen Keller’s father was a captain in the Confederate Army.

Emma Goldman was born in Kaunas, Lithuania. Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Leon Czolgosz was inspired to assassinate president William McKinley after hearing a speech by Emma Goldman. Helen Keller met McKinley. (In fact, she met every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson.)

Goldman worked closely with fellow-anarchist (and her occasional lover) Alexander Berkman. Keller worked closely with her teacher Annie Sullivan, whose husband introduced Keller to socialism (Keller is not believed to have been the lover of either of them).

Helen Keller wrote a book called “Out of the Dark,” chronicling her discovery of socialism.

Goldman and Keller were both radical activists. Keller co-founded the ACLU, joined the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, and supported Eugene V. Debs in his several campaigns for president under the Socialist banner. She campaigned for rights for disabled people, women’s rights, and worker’s rights throughout the world. Goldman was an anarchist, feminist, and labor organizer, on the forefront of the leading labor and rights issues of her day. Both campaigned for birth control.

Goldman and Keller wrote numerous books and articles and were acclaimed public speakers.

Industrialist Henry Clay Frick donated $2,500 in financial aid to Helen Keller. Emma Goldman tried to kill Henry Clay Frick.

Helen Keller’s political views were unpopular in her day and have been marginalized from her life story since her death. Emma Goldman was a victim of the US’s first Red Scare and was deported.

Emma Goldman opened and ran an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Helen Keller introduced the Akita dog breed to the United States.

Maureen Stapleton won an academy award for playing the role of Emma Goldman in Reds. Helen Keller accepted the Academy Award for the 1954 documentary Helen Keller in Her Story and played herself in Deliverance, a silent movie about her life.

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Keller and Goldman later in life.

Grover + Frances Up in a Tree

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

On June 2, 1886, Stephen “Call Me Grover” Cleveland was the first U.S. President to marry in the White House. You’d think a big splashy society wedding at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be a dream come true for any girl, but a few of the details sit squarely on the fence between romantic and unsettling:

Grover’s fiancée, Frances Clara Folsom, was the daughter of his deceased law partner.

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Grover did not invite Frances to his inauguration, but proposed later that year in secret.

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Frances was Grover’s ward for 11 years (not legally).

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Grover proposed by mail.

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Frances was 21 when they got married. Grover was 49.

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The first present Grover bought Frances was a baby carriage (when she was a baby).

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When Frances was 49 years old, she married an archeology professor from her alma mater, Wells College.

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