March 4, 1793: Shortest Inaugural Address

 

The shortest inaugural address was given on March 4, 1793.  Since it was delivered by George Washington it still managed to be meaningful as well as brief.  I wish every one of his successors had to repeat the final paragraph:

 

 

Fellow Citizens:

I AM again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.

Published in: on March 4, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 4, 1793: Shortest Inaugural Address  
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Grant on Pierce

You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me by your strength.

President Franklin Pierce, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.  Today we will look at a President who has vanished from popular memory.

Franklin Pierce was a doughface, the pejorative applied to Northern politicians prior to the Civil War who embraced the South’s view of slavery.  While personally opposed to slavery, where have we heard that formulation before, Pierce also opposed all efforts to restrict slavery, fearing that such efforts would merely antagonize the South and ultimately lead to civil war.  He was thrust into the Presidency as the darkest of dark horse candidates, nominated by the Democrats in 1852 on the 49th ballot, winning easily in the fall against his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott, the last presidential candidate of the dying Whig Party.

Historians, the few who have examined his term in office in detail, have been generally scathing about his service as President, as Pierce did nothing to halt the drift towards the civil war he so feared, with his steadfast determination to yield to the South in the face of growing Northern anger.  Perhaps fortunately for his historical reputation, Pierce ranks high on the list of forgotten presidents, his life largely going down the memory hole of the general public.  That process began during his lifetime, as the whirlwind of events that would lead to the Civil War passed him by.  Pierce perhaps sensed this himself, stating as he left office in 1857, that all he had left now to do was to get drunk.  To be fair to Pierce, few men had more to get drunk about, all three of his sons having died in childhood, his last son at eleven years of age after having been almost totally decapitated in a train accident in front of his shattered parents, just before Pierce assumed the office of President.  After his wife died in 1863, his drinking got completely out of hand and he died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1869.  President Grant, who had served with Pierce in the Mexican War made sure that the forgotten man received the honors in death that he warranted as a former President.  In his memoirs Grant went out his way to praise Pierce and we will let him have the last word on Pierce:

 

General Franklin Pierce had joined the army in Mexico, at Puebla, a short time before the advance upon the capital commenced. He had consequently not been in any of the engagements of the war up to the Battle of Contreras. By an unfortunate fall of his horse on the afternoon of the 19th he was painfully injured. The next day, when his brigade, with the other troops engaged on the same field, was ordered against the flank and rear of the enemy guarding the different points of the road from San Augustin Tlalplan to the city, General Pierce attempted to accompany them. He was not sufficiently recovered to do so, and fainted. This circumstance gave rise to exceedingly unfair and unjust criticisms of him when he became a candidate for the Presidency. Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.

Grant reminds us that public service of a President can tell us only so much about the private man, and here endeth the lesson.

 

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant on Pierce  
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The Curse of Tippecanoe

Two hundred and six years ago, Territorial Governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison smashed the forces of the Indian Confederacy being formed by Tecumseh.  His victory would propel him into the White House three decades later.  His thirty-one day tenure, before dying of pneumonia, is the shortest presidential term on record.

 

An odd coincidence in American history is the death of every President in office beginning with William Henry Harrison and ending with John F. Kennedy elected in a year ending in zero.  A myth was developed ascribing this to a curse put on William Henry Harrison by the brother of the great Indian leader Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, better known as the Prophet: (more…)

Published in: on November 7, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Curse of Tippecanoe  
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Rumadum Dum

Something for the weekend, Rumadum Dum, the campaign song for the Zachary Taylor campaign in 1848.

Published in: on February 25, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Rumadum Dum  
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December 4, 1849: Annual Message to Congress

 

 

Fate dealt President Zachary Taylor only one annual message to Congress.  It is a fascinating look at the world and of America at mid-stream in the 19th century:

 

Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Sixty years have elapsed since the establishment of this Government, and the Congress of the United States again assembles to legislate for an empire of freemen. The predictions of evil prophets, who formerly pretended to foretell the downfall of our institutions, are now remembered only to be derided, and the United States of America at this moment present to the world the most stable and permanent Government on earth.

Such is the result of the labors of those who have gone before us. Upon Congress will eminently depend the future maintenance of our system of free government and the transmission of it unimpaired to posterity.

We are at peace with all the other nations of the world, and seek to maintain our cherished relations of amity with them. During the past year we have been blessed by a kind Providence with an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and although the destroying angel for a time visited extensive portions of our territory with the ravages of a dreadful pestilence, yet the Almighty has at length deigned to stay his hand and to restore the inestimable blessing of general health to a people who have acknowledged His power, deprecated His wrath, and implored His merciful protection. (more…)

Published in: on February 24, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 4, 1849: Annual Message to Congress  
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Was Zachary Taylor Murdered?

 

I find it comforting that conspiracy theorists have always been with us, and that they are not only a feature of our times.  On July 4, 1850 Taylor had a busy day attending several Independence Day celebrations and a fund raising event for the Washington Monument.  The day was hot and Taylor drank a lot of ice milk and ate a great deal of raw fruit.  Unsurprisingly he came down with a gastric ailment thereafter.  Physicians treated him with the best medicine of the time, which often weakened or finished off the poor patients subject to it:  Taylor was dosed with ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and bled and blistered.  Several of Taylor’s cabinet members came down with similar symptoms.  The 65 year old Taylor died on July 9, 1850.

In hindsight an analysis of Taylor’s death is pretty straightforward.  The White House had a tainted water supply with raw sewage running into it.  This probably killed three presidents:  Harrison, Polk (who died shortly after his term in office) and Taylor.  Cholera was the big killer in 19th century urban centers until sewers were installed, and Taylor likely died of some variant of that bacterial infection.

Taylor had opposed what became known as the Compromise of 1850, wanting to keep slavery out of the territories won from Mexico.  Some abolitionists claimed, without any evidence, that pro-slavery advocates had poisoned the president.  Although rumors abounded, no official investigation ever took place. (more…)

Published in: on February 23, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Was Zachary Taylor Murdered?  
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Lincoln on Taylor

 

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

American presidents all fit into two broad categories:  those who had political careers and held political offices prior to their presidency and those who did not.  Only five presidents held no political office prior to being elected President:  Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump.  Zachary Taylor, the first non-politician to become president, is now an obscure figure to most Americans, his fame in the Mexican War almost entirely forgotten by the oblivion that has largely swallowed that conflict, and his relatively brief time in office ensuring that his administration would be one of the forgotten ones in popular memory.  Ironically, one of our two most famous Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, deliver a eulogy on the death of Taylor.  Tomorrow I will comment on the obituary.  Today, I want us to focus on Lincoln’s words, as we use the eulogy as a springboard to look at “Old Rough and Ready” throughout this week.  Here is Lincoln’s eulogy:

 

EULOGY PRONOUNCED
BY HON. A. LINCOLN,
ON THE LIFE AND SERVICES OF THE LATE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES,
At Chicago, July 25th, 1850

GENERAL ZACHARY TAYLOR, the eleventh elected President of the United States, is dead. He was born Nov. 2nd, [2] 1784, in Orange county, Virginia; and died July the 9th 1850, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the White House in Washington City. He was the second [3] son of Richard Taylor, a Colonel in the army of the Revolution. His youth was passed among the pioneers of Kentucky, whither his parents emigrated soon after his birth; and where his taste for military life, probably inherited, was greatly stimulated. Near the commencement of our last war with Great Britain, he was appointed by President Jefferson, a lieutenant in the 7th regiment of Infantry. During the war, he served under Gen. Harrison in his North Western campaign against the Indians; and, having been promoted to a captaincy, was intrusted with the defence of Fort Harrison, with fifty men, half of them unfit for duty. A strong party of Indians, under the Prophet, brother of Tecumseh, made a midnight attack on the Fort; but Taylor, though weak in his force, and without preparation, was resolute, and on the alert; and, after a battle, which lasted till after daylight, completely repulsed them. Soon after, he took a prominent part in the expedition under Major Gen. Hopkins against the Prophet’s town; and, on his return, found a letter from President Madison, who had succeeded Mr. Jefferson, conferring on him a major’s brevet for his gallant defence of Fort Harrison. (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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March 4, 1841: Longest Inaugural Address

 

 

 

President William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in American history.  He spoke for one hour and forty-five minutes in a howling snow storm, without wearing a hat or a coat.   Catching pneumonia, he died one month later.  Here is the text of his address:

 

 

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence.

Although the fiat of the people has gone forth proclaiming me the Chief Magistrate of this glorious Union, nothing upon their part remaining to be done, it may be thought that a motive may exist to keep up the delusion under which they may be supposed to have acted in relation to my principles and opinions; and perhaps there may be some in this assembly who have come here either prepared to condemn those I shall now deliver, or, approving them, to doubt the sincerity with which they are now uttered. But the lapse of a few months will confirm or dispel their fears. The outline of principles to govern and measures to be adopted by an Administration not yet begun will soon be exchanged for immutable history, and I shall stand either exonerated by my countrymen or classed with the mass of those who promised that they might deceive and flattered with the intention to betray. However strong may be my present purpose to realize the expectations of a magnanimous and confiding people, I too well understand the dangerous temptations to which I shall be exposed from the magnitude of the power which it has been the pleasure of the people to commit to my hands not to place my chief confidence upon the aid of that Almighty Power which has hitherto protected me and enabled me to bring to favorable issues other important but still greatly inferior trusts heretofore confided to me by my country. (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 4, 1841: Longest Inaugural Address  
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Rate That President ! : Part II

The second part of my rating of US Presidents.  The first part may be viewed here.

24.  John F. Kennedy-From a moral standpoint perhaps the worst man ever to sit in the White House, the recent revelations of his teenage White House intern mistress during that time period helping to cement that status.  Kennedy was a strong advocate of the space race and set the country the goal of landing a man on the moon which the nation met in 1969.  He presided over a prosperous economy, helped along with a reduction in marginal rates which he pushed through.  In foreign policy he presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and our widening involvement in South Vietnam, lending support to the coup that toppled Diem. He will always be best known for the Cuban Missile Crisis which he successfully navigated, but it was a very close shave for the world.  On civil rights, he gave much lip service to it, but it would be his successor who would push through the key civil rights legislation.  The second most over-rated president in our nation’s history.

25.  James Garfield-A Union Civil War general with a superb combat record, Garfield was also a canny politician with seven terms under his belt in the House.  During the brief four months he held the office before his assassination, he staked out positions in favor of civil service reform, the hot domestic issue of the day, and reform of the post office.   He refinanced a substantial portion of the national debt at a lower interest rate, saving the nation millions in interest payments.  An ardent advocate of civil rights for blacks, he sponsored a bill to provide for universal federal education to combat the fact that in many Southern states no provision was made to educate blacks.  It failed in Congress after Garfield’s death.  He appointed many blacks to federal office, and began to reverse President Rutherford’s policy of conciliation white Southerners at the expense of blacks.  Garfield began the policy of modernizing the Navy carried forward by President Arthur.

26.  John Tyler-Known as “His Accidency” by his critics after he took over when President Harrison died just after thirty days in office, Harrison set the mold for Vice-Presidents who assumed the office.  It was by no means clear that he would be called President and that he would have the full powers of the President or be considered to be simply conducting a caretaker “regency” until the next election for President.  Harrison had none of that.  He insisted on being called President and was quite clear in his own mind that he had all of the powers of an elected President.  Aside from this setting of precedent, the most signficant event in his presidency was the annexation of Texas at the very end of his term.  Tyler was a former Democrat and he acted like a Democrat as president, vetoing almost the entire Whig agenda, including vetoing a proposed national bank twice.  The Whigs in the House, for the first time in the nation’s history, began impeachment proceedings.  Tyler probably would have been impeached if the Whigs had not lost their majority in the 1842 election in the House.  Tyler died in 1862, shortly after his election as a representative to the Confederate Congress.  Stunningly, he still has two living grandsons.

27.  Herbert Hoover-Hoover rose from poverty to become a self-made millionaire as a mining engineer.  He was a noted philanthropist, organizing relief efforts in Europe throughout World War I, saving tens of millions of lives.  His administration was dominated by the Great Depression.  To combat the Depression Hoover initiated policies that set the precedent for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Like the New Deal, Hoover’s policies were largely unsuccessful in combating the Depression.  Out of office, Hoover became an outspoken critic of the New Deal which he regarded as socialism by another name.  Hoover lived on until 1964, staying active in various causes, and being called upon by all his successors as president for advice and to conduct special missions for them.  The only exception was Roosevelt, who shared with Hoover a cordial enmity.

28.  Gerald Ford-Our only president never to be elected either president or vice president, Ford was left to pick up the pieces after Nixon resigned in disgrace.  Pardoning Nixon was probably the right thing to do to avoid the nation having to go through several more years of the Watergate melodrama, and Ford took immense grief for doing so.  In foreign affairs his hands were tied by a Democrat leftist dominated Congress that came to power in the election of 1974, and 1975 witnessed the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the Communists, and set the stage for Soviet adventurism in Africa and Afghanistan.  Domestically, the country went through a short but sharp recession in 1974 largely caused by the Arab oil embargo.  Inflation was still a great problem, but the economy had vastly improved by 1976 and Ford probably would have beaten Carter but for Ford making a verbal mistep in one of their debates, claiming that Poland was not under Soviet domination, and stubbornly refusing to correct himself for several days.  He died in 2006 at 93, making him the longest lived president, beating Reagan for that distinction by 45 days.

29. Millard Fillmore-Fillmore took over as the last Whig president following the death of Zachary Taylor.  He helped push through the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the Civil War for decade, and after you have mentioned that you have largely accounted for any historical importance of the Fillmore administration, other than the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry which occurred under President Pierce but which Fillmore initiated.  In retirement Fillmore turned down an honorary degree from Oxford, saying that he was unworthy of it, and noting that it was written in Latin and that a man should never accept a degree that he was unable to read. (more…)

Published in: on February 21, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Rate That President! : Part I

Time for my annual rant about Presidents’ Day.  I see no reason why great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln should share a date with miserable failures like James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter.  Technically the federal holiday is still George Washington’s birthday, although that makes absolutely no sense as the holiday has to fall between February 15-21, and thus can never occur on February 22, Washington’s birthday.  A popular sport for Americans has always been rating their Presidents.  All such ratings are of course subjective and mine is no exception.  I weigh the good and the ill that a particular president did and that determines his place in my ranking.  Feel free to note your disagreements in the comboxes.  Here is Part I of my list from best to worst:

1.  George Washington-The Father of our Country is the standard by which all presidents should measure themselves.  Victory in the American Revolution would have been impossible without his leadership.  At the Constitutional Convention, his quiet leadership was a steadying force for the often quarrelsome and contentious drafters.  His presence ensured that the constitution drafted would be taken seriously by the States.  As President he established endless precedents for his successors to follow, dealt successfully with the huge national debt left from the Revolution, and knit the Union together.  None of his successors come close to him except for Lincoln.

2.  Abraham Lincoln-In just a little over four years he fought and won our Civil War, ended slavery and preserved our Union.  His speeches are masterpieces of the English language.  The great tragedy for our nation is that he was slain before he could attempt to guide the nation through Reconstruction.  Washington and Lincoln are in a class by themselves.

3.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt-I believe that his policies during the New Deal were truly voodoo economics and that much of what he did was wrongheaded and retarded recovery and economic growth.  However, only a fool could deny that his raising of American morale through the New Deal was anything less than brilliant.  As a war president he was wise enough to let the generals and admirals fight the war, and, in general, he chose them wisely.  He is largely responsible for the creation of modern America, a fact that will earn him both boos and plaudits.

4.  Theodore Roosevelt-With the first Roosevelt to occupy the oval office, America strode onto the world stage.  From building the Panama Canal, resolving the Russo-Japanese War to the sailing of the Great White Fleet around the globe, Roosevelt set the framework for the American Century.

5.  James K. Polk-He settled the Oregon dispute with Great Britain and successfully waged the Mexican War which added vast territories to our country.  Few presidents have accomplished as much in two terms as Polk did in one.  He also had the good grace to die shortly after he left office, a policy some other former presidents would have been wise to emulate.

6.  Ronald Reagan-The successor to one of our worst presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan restored American prosperity and morale.  His policies initiated an economic boom which, with minor lapses, endured for almost a quarter of a century.  He masterfully brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion with an American victory.  The best president of my lifetime.

7.  Thomas Jefferson-Easily the most over-rated president in American history.  I place him this high solely because of the Louisiana Purchase.  In many ways the Purchase ran counter to his political principles but he did not allow those principles to stand in the way of an action that enormously benefited the nation.  Jefferson also deserves praise for the first war with the Barbary Pirates where he demonstrated a willingness to defend America’s interests, which ran counter to his military policies which weakened the defenses of the nation.

8.  Grover Cleveland-The only Democrat to attain the presidency in the just over a half century between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson, and doing so twice in non-consecutive terms, Cleveland was a classical liberal and today would be considered a political conservative.  He was pro-business and pro the gold standard.  He was completely out of sympathy with the economic populism which was beginning to reshape his party.  An advocate of civil service reform, he was notable for keeping on Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt at the Civil Service Commission, who he viewed as doing a good job.  A political reformer all of his career, he waged a steady fight against political corruption, and attracted a good deal of support from reform minded Republicans.  He vetoed many spending bills which he regarded as excessive or unconstitutional.  In one of his vetoes he included this message which deserves to be remembered by all Americans:

I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood. (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (11)  
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