Happy Summer from History First!

History First will be offline for the next two weeks–but we’ll return the week of July 30th with our usual biweekly publications.

In the meantime we encourage you to check out some of the articles we’ve written over the past few months!

We’ve written about everything from McKinley’s bad luck to Bush Sr.’s baseball game with the Queen of England. We looked back on the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial–and which speakers weren’t allowed to sit on the stage–and examined JFK’s famous speech in Berlin, putting to rest the notion that he compared himself to a donut in front of thousands of Germans. In other words, we’ve covered a lot! Check out a list of recent articles to the right, or search to see if we’ve written about your favorite presidential story.

Happy Summer!

Love,

History First

Harry Truman & the Creation of NATO: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

President Trump is in Europe this week, stirring up animosity among European allies as he rages on Twitter about their contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Trump has taken a decidedly different approach to NATO than his predecessors, and many European leaders seem to be at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new American policy. The European Council president, Donald Tusk, even went as far as to say, “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.”

TRUMP NATO
Photo Credit: Politico.com (Matt Wuerker)

For many Americans of a certain generation, NATO has always existed. So where did it come from? To answer this, we must look to Harry Truman.

Following WWII, many European and American leaders were alarmed by Soviet aggression. This led to several alliances and pacts among European countries, seeking to combine Western European defenses with the United States’ policy of containment. NATO, then, was born in part from Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” which pledged support to nations threatened by communism and sought to counter Soviet expansion.

The twelve original countries (the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Great Britain) signed an agreement that stated “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” President Truman called NATO “a shield against HST NATO 2aggression.”

NATO wasn’t a universally accepted idea in the United States. Just as isolationists had opposed President Wilson’s League of Nations, they rejected the idea of involving the United States in a multinational alliance. This push was led by Robert Taft, the son of the former president William Howard Taft, who said that NATO “was not a peace program, but a war program.” The Soviet Union felt threaten by the alliance, and created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as their own version of NATO.

After a lengthy confirmation process in the Senate, the NATO treaty was confirmed.

When Harry Truman signed the treaty on August 24, 1949 he declared:

“By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.”

Since it’s founding, NATO has fought ISIS and helped to broker peace in Bosnia. After the two world wars of the 20th century, it has maintained relative peace among European nations. In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time–this being the clause that declares that an attack on one nation is an attack on them all–in order to deliver assistance to the United States.

The world is very different than the 1940s and 1950s when NATO was born. And so is the man in the White House. Whether or not Trump continues to engage with NATO or removes the United States from the alliance all together has yet to be seen.

Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, conspiracy theories abound in today’s politics. But conspiracy theories have always had a place in American political history. On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as president, stepping into the role from the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor died in office. Taylor’s death was seen as suspicious by some, to the point that his body was exhumed 141 years after his death.

milly fillmore
Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

Taylor, after partaking in 4th of July activities on a hot summer day in Washington D.C. is reported to have downed large quantities of iced milk and cherries, which gave him a terrible stomach ache. The doctors who tried to cure him made things worse, and Taylor, a Whig, died a few days later. His vice president Fillmore was also a Whig, but had dabbled in perhaps the first (but not the last) political party born of a conspiracy theory, the Anti-Masons, who believed that Freemasons were murdering whistleblowers. They counted John Quincy Adams as one of their members. Fillmore would also later join the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party.

Taylor’s illness at the time was attributed to “cholera morbus” caused by what he ate, but suspicions abounded. Although Taylor had no known enemies–Professor Elbert B. Smith, of the University of Maryland called him the “Eisenhower of his time”–he did live in an era ripe with political tension. In the build-up to the Civil War, which would start ten years later, states continued to argue about rules pertaining to slavery, leading one Senator to draw a pistol on another on the Senate floor in the months before Taylor’s death.

Taylor was from the South and had even owned slaves, but his actions as president made many Southerners nervous. He had climbed the political rungs through his career as a soldier, and sought to damper any talks of secession among the states. Fillmore was from the North, but sympathetic to Southern interests. Once president, he helped to arrange the Compromise of 1850 which Taylor had opposed. Although the Compromise allowed California into the Union as a free state, it also hardened the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to help recover slaves who had fled their owners, and denying slaves who fled their right to a trial by jury.

Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991, after lobbying by author Clara Rising, who claimed that Taylor, not Lincoln, could be the first American president to be assassinated. She theorized that Taylor’s death could have come from arsenic poisoning, and that he had died suddenly and strangely for someone so healthy. “Right after his death, everything [Taylor] had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” said Rising.

The results of the tests done on Taylor’s exhumed body put the conspiracy theory to rest: although his corpse contained trace amounts of arsenic, it would not have been enough to kill him. It’s likely that the milk and cherries that Taylor ate did not kill the president, but perhaps exacerbated another condition–and the doctors’ attempts to save him likely made things worse.

Although Taylor didn’t live long enough to leave much of a mark on the presidency or the nation, his untimely death easily leads to speculation of what could have happened if he lived. If Taylor had served out his full term, instead of Fillmore, would it have been possible to avoid the Civil War? We’ll never know.

William Howard Taft & the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president. He was driven to the White House on the crest of his wife’s ambitions–she had wanted to be First Lady since childhood. Taft’s enduring goal was to join the Supreme Court.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

Taft had harbored this ambition since he became a superior court judge in his late twenties. Several times he got close–President McKinley promised him an appointment if Taft would accept his order to serve as Governor General of the Philippines. And President Roosevelt had similarly (twice) offered an appointment. But Taft found himself consistently answering to other callings outside of the Supreme Court–he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines and his wife, Nellie, convinced him pursue the presidency instead.

Taft didn’t especially enjoy being president–he once remarked that he hardly remembered his one term in office–and the end of his presidency was clouded by his former friend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, effectively denying either of them a chance of reelection. But Taft did leave his mark on American jurisprudence–as president, he had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Supreme Court.

taft sworn inOn October 3rd, 1921, Taft finally realized his ultimate goal and was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

As Chief Justice, Taft would oversee a court that expanded federal power, leaned conservative, and approved of Prohibition.

Many of Taft’s decisions–including a controversial ruling that allowed warrantless wiretaps of telephone conversations to be used against defendants in court–were overturned once he retired from the bench. Antonin Scalia noted that Taft, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Perhaps Taft’s greatest legacy on the Supreme Court was to increase its power and prestige. Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges’ Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court more control over the cases in its docket and took away the automatic right of appeal. Taft often pushed for unanimity among his fellow justices, believing that such a statement would increase the court’s authority.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, left a tangible mark on Washington D.C. As First Lady, she set about theSCOTUS beautify the city, and ordered 2,000 cherry trees from Japan as part of this effort. Taft too forever changed the landscape of the capitol. He lobbied Congress to put aside funds for a new Supreme Court building–the one we know today–moving the justices out of the old Senate Chamber and into a building of their own. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Of his presidency, Taft once remarked “I don’t remember that I ever was president.” He served nine years on the bench as opposed to four years as president, presiding over 250 decisions. Taft only left the Supreme Court once his health required that he do so.

Anthony Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Reshaping the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

On February 5th, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he would attempt to expand the Supreme Court bench. His announcement incited instant outrage–Roosevelt’s opponents accused him of trying to pack the court so that he could push through his New Deal policies. Roosevelt’s plan was radical—he sought to completely reshape the court—but the idea of changing the number of justices is not, and indeed, Congress has adjusted the size of the Supreme Court six times in American history.

Originally, the Judiciary Act of 1789 ruled that there would be six justices. But when Thomas Jefferson swept to power in a Democratic wave that also put his party in Congress, the lame-duck Federalist Congress voted to reduce the number of justices to five. When the next Congress was sworn in, they repealed this decision, keeping the court at six justices. In Jefferson’s second term, they added a seventh, affording Jefferson the opportunity to appoint someone to the bench.

Thirty years later the size of the court changed again. Congress increased the court to nine justices, which gave Andrew Jackson the opportunity to hand-pick the two additions to the Supreme Court.

Change came again in the 1860s. This was a a turbulent time for the nation, and the Supreme Court. In the midst of the Civil War the court expanded yet again to an all-time high of ten justices–this time to protect an anti-slavery/pro-Union majority. But when Andrew Johnson became president following Lincoln’s assassination, the Republican Congress reduced the size of the court to protect it from a Democratic president. The court shrank from ten justices to seven. Congress effectively removed Johnson’s ability to appoint any justices. Then when Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1868 after Johnson left office, Congress voted to expand the court to nine justices. For many people in 1937 when Roosevelt made his pronouncement, nine justices felt like a norm—like an unchangeable fact of the judicial system.

Roosevelt’s plan, however, was not as simple as expanding the court. He wanted to enforce rules to make justices retire at 70, and, if they refused, give himself the power to appoint associate justices who could vote in their stead. This would effectively give him the power to sculpt the court, and to ensure the legality of his New Deal legislation.

FDR had had a productive first term, and had won reelection by a stunning margin. (He had won the largest popular vote margin in American history, and the best electoral vote margin since James Monroe ran unopposed). But the justices on the Supreme Court had publicly expressed opposition to Roosevelt’s policies. Because six of the nine were over 70, Roosevelt’s plan would boot them off the bench. His argument was that they had grown too old to do their work, and that they had fallen behind. A lifetime term, Roosevelt said, “was not intended to create a static judiciary. A constant and systematic addition of younger blood will vitalize the courts.”

But Roosevelt’s statement that the Court was behind on its work wasn’t true. His plan was met with roaring opposition as letters poured in from around the country. Even his vice president, John Nance Gardner, expressed displeasure as the plan was read aloud in Congress, holding his nose and making a thumbs-down gesture. In the Senate, Roosevelt could only gather 20 votes for his plan.

Roosevelt wasn’t able to make any changes to the Supreme Court. Yet, perhaps because of his maneuvering, he convinced one justice, Owen Roberts, to switch his vote to support many New Deal policies.

Given the outrage at the time of Roosevelt’s proposal, and it’s ultimate failure, it’s no wonder that the idea of changing the composition of the court is often met with distrust and derision. But there is nothing in the Constitution that says the Supreme Court has to stay at nine justices, and, indeed, it has fluctuated between six and ten throughout American history. Perhaps Roosevelt could have succeeded if he had merely attempted to expand the Court as Congress did under Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant. 

Today, with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s swing vote, the idea of changing the composition of the court has begun to gain traction among Democrats. As many liberals look down the barrel of thirty or forty years of conservative Supreme Court decisions, expanding the court to allow the appointment of more liberal justices could be the remedy they are seeking. 

 

James Madison: Last Words and Lessons Learned

By Kaleena Fraga

When James Madison died on this day in 1836, he was the last surviving signer of the U.S. Constitution. Because his fellow ex-presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe had serendipitously died on July 4th, Madison’s doctor offered to prolong his life so that he too could die on the July 4th anniversary. Madison refused. He died six days before the 60th anniversary of the nation’s birth.

As Madison’s family gathered around his deathbed, one of his nieces noticed a shift in her uncle’s expression. When she asked him if he was alright, he responded with his last words: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”

Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, accomplished a lot in the early history of the United States, including his two terms as president. (One of History First’s favorite political facts is that the U.S. has only had three consecutive two term presidents twice–Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Clinton, Bush, Obama). But on this anniversary of his death, we’ll focus on a lesson Madison learned early on. Madison, who once read the histories of every confederacy ever in order to systematically analyze what could work and what wouldn’t in the young United States, only had to learn his lessons once.

In 1777 Madison ran for the Virginia Assembly. These elections–nine months after independence was declared–would be the first elections which Virginia’s white male citizens could participate. County-based elections at the time had a festive atmosphere, and were treated like a public holiday. Those running for election customarily provided alcohol–beer and whiskey–to their voters.

According to Madison biographer Noah Feldman, from his work the The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, there was a symbolic meaning to to this arrangement. “In a culture that emphasized deference to authority,” Feldman writes, “the candidates were presenting themselves as generous, gracious men of means, pleased to indulge the (slightly) lower orders.”

Madison at the time was flush with republican spirit, and the belief that all men were created equal. To provide alcohol to voters, he reasoned, would be akin to buying their votes. He believed that this election should reflect “the purity of moral and of republican principles.” Voters, he thought, could do their civic duty without the “the corrupting influence of spiritous liquors, and other treats.”

Big mistake.

Although Madison decided his voters would be flattered that he treated them as equals, and as men incorruptible by liquor, he had erred. Voters saw Madison’s decision to withhold alcohol as an expression of “pride or parsimony.” His opponent, Charles Porter, was a tavern keeper who happily provided alcohol to the gathered voters. Porter won the election.

“The ordinary voter,” writes Feldman, “did not want to have a pint of ale with James Madison; and the feeling, Madison demonstrated, was mutual.”

Madison learned his lesson. He’d never again fail to provide alcohol and “treats” to his voters. In any case, his legacy grew to overshadow a single lost election early in his political career.

“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”: Kennedy in Berlin, 1963

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1963, John F. Kennedy addressed an exultant crowd of 1.1 million Germans–about 58% of Berlin’s population. During this speech, Kennedy would famously declare:

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

These were words that he’d jotted down himself, moments before taking the stage. They actually weren’t in his prepared text at all.

jfk berlin

The crafting of the speech was an exercise in international politics. Kennedy and his team wanted to make a defiant statement on the Soviet’s doorstep–at this point the wall was only two years old–but without upsetting the Soviets too much. The first draft didn’t go far enough, and both Kennedy and the American commandant in Berlin found it “terrible.” Kennedy’s solution was to rewrite the speech by himself.

The famous line Ich bin ein Berliner later turned into a myth that JFK had actually told one million Germans I am a jelly donut, but this is patently false. The crowd gathered in Berlin completely understood the meaning of Kennedy’s statement–and went wild for it. In any case, although a Berliner is a type of donut in Germany, it’s actually called a Pfannkucken in Berlin.

The line was perhaps not original–it appears that the ex-president Herbert Hoover wrote the same line in a guest book in Berlin in 1954, although it’s doubtful Kennedy knew that–but it made a huge impression on both the gathered Germans and the Soviets, watching closely from the other side of the city. The Germans renamed the square where JFK had delivered the speech John F. Kennedy Platz after Kennedy’s assassination. Nikita Krushchev gave a speech of his own in Berlin two days after JFK, to a crowd of roughly 500,000 Germans. His pronouncement I love the wall did not have the same effect as JFK’s Ich bin ein Berliner. 

The memory of JFK is still strong in Berlin. The museum The Kennedys hosts the second largest collection of Kennedy memorabilia in the world, and plays JFK’s Berlin speech on a loop. It’s worth watching: