John Tyler, The Traitor

After his presidency, John Tyler became a staunch supporter of the emerging Confederate States of America

By Kaleena Fraga

John Tyler is best known for two things. One, he was the “Tyler” in “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Second, he was the first vice president to become president, after William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.

But Tyler’s legacy contains another facet as well. After his presidency, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Confederacy.

John Tyler’s Path to the Presidency

John Tyler, circa 1826 | Virginia Historical Society

John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790, to a slave-holding family in Virginia. He was raised to be a member of the Southern gentry, receiving a top-notch education as his family’s dozens of slaves toiled on the plantation outside.

As a young man, Tyler used his connections among Southern elite to secure a place in the Virginia House of Delegates — which led to a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives, a stint as governor of Virginia, and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In politics, Tyler made his views known. He distrusted federal overreach — and voted to censure legislators who supported the Bank of the United States. He did not support the Missouri Compromise of 1820 — Tyler believed slavery should be legal everywhere. And he deeply disliked the populist Democrat Andrew Jackson, to such an extent that Tyler left the Democratic party and joined the new anti-Jackson Whig party.

The Whigs maneuvered to block Jackson’s power. They failed in stopping his vice president, Martin Van Buren, from succeeding Jackson in 1836. But in 1840, their ticket of William Henry Harrison (the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe) and Tyler led to victory — and to History First’s favorite song:

“Tippecanoe and Tyler too” by They Might Be Giants (based on an 1840s campaign song)

But Harrison died just one month into his presidency.

This was a first. No president had died in office before. And no one was exactly sure what to do. Yes, Tyler would take power — but was he the “president”? Some called him “His Accidency.” But Tyler set a precedent for vice presidents becoming president and not just an acting president.

Tyler receiving word that Harrison had died | Library of Congress

As the president — and in a sign of things to come — Tyler bucked his party in favor of state’s rights. His veto of bills attempting to establish a national bank infuriated his fellow Whigs, who responded by launching impeachment proceedings against him. (The first time this had been done.)

Tyler survived. However, the furious Whigs expelled him from their party.

“Popularity, I have always thought, may aptly be compared to a coquette,” Tyler mused. “The more you woo her, the more apt is she to elude your embrace.”

In 1844, Tyler, lacking a party, was forced to run as a third-party candidate. He eventually threw his weight behind the Democrat, James K. Polk, to deny the Whigs a victory.

The Emergence Of The Confederacy

The attack at Fort Sumter launched the Civil War | Wikimedia Commons

After Polk succeeded Tyler, the 10th president returned home to Virginia. But storm clouds were on the horizon. In just fifteen years, the country would shatter into the bloody conflict of the Civil War.

Tyler watched the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 with deep displeasure. “The day of doom for the great model republic is at hand,” he wrote. Southerners agreed with Tyler. Before long, rumbles of secession filled the country.

However, Tyler, to his credit, initially tried to prevent violence. He convened a “Peace Convention” after six states had seceded from the Union, with the goal of finding alternatives to disunion. Delegates from all states were invited to attend the Convention, which took place in February 1861.

But Tyler’s efforts were in vain. He had slowed — but could not stop — the outbreak of bloodshed.

Instead, he decided to give up on the cause of peace. Tyler threw his weight behind the nascent Confederacy. He voted for Virginia to secede and was soon elected to join the Confederate House of Representatives. His granddaughter was even the first person to raise the Confederate flag.

“When he takes this action, he knows he’s a rebel,” noted Edward P. Crapol, who wrote a biography of Tyler called John Tyler, The Accidental President. “He knows what he’s done. They’re not playing bean bag, if you know what I mean. This is very serious stuff.”

However, Tyler died before he could serve the Confederacy. On January 12, 1862, he died of a likely stroke at the Ballard Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.

John Tyler’s Legacy Today

John Tyler in 1861, shortly before his death | Library of Congress

After John Tyler died, the Confederacy celebrated him as one of their founding heroes. His coffin was draped with a Confederate flag. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, arranged a parade in his honor and ordered flags lowered to half-mast.

But in the North, news of John Tyler’s death was greeted with stony silence. He was seen as a traitor. Abraham Lincoln issued no word about his passing — marking the first, and only, time in American history that an official proclamation wasn’t issued following a president’s death.

The New York Times, noting that other living presidents remained loyal to the Union, called Tyler “the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States.” The paper went on, sneering:

“He ended his life suddenly, last Friday, in Richmond — going down to death amid the ruins of his native State. He himself was one of the architects of its ruin; and beneath that melancholy wreck his name will be buried, instead of being inscribed on the Capitol’s monumental marble, as a year ago he so much desired.”

Then the Times dealt a final blow:

“It will be remembered that Mr. TYLER’s mansion at Hampton, over which he hoisted the rebel flag last Spring, has been for some time occupied as quarters by our troops.”

Ouch.

Tyler’s legacy hasn’t particularly improved since his death. His fellow presidents express little admiration for their predecessor who betrayed his country. Harry Truman called him “one of the presidents we could have done without.” Theodore Roosevelt described Tyler as “a politician of monumental littleness.”

In his biography of John Tyler’s life, Robert Seager wrote: “His countrymen generally remember him, if they have heard of him at all, as the rhyming end of a catchy campaign slogan.”

But history should remember Tyler for two things. One, he cemented the idea that the vice president becomes the president, if the president dies. And two, he betrayed the country which he had sworn to serve.

White House Weddings: A Brief History

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Valentine’s Day from History First! Is the presidency romantic? Well, couples throughout history have thought so—multiple people have gotten married at the White House since the beginning of the 19th-century. Curiously, only one president has ever been married there.

Join us on a walk down the aisle. Here are some stories about weddings at the White House:

Grover Cleveland: The Only President to Get Married at the White House

Grover Cleveland is the only president to have married at the White House | Library of Congress

History First has had a lot of love for Grover Cleveland, lately. We’ve written about his health scares and how he was the only non-consecutive president in American history. For a president most Americans don’t remember, Cleveland had a lot of “firsts” and “onlys”. One of these is his wedding. Grover Cleveland is the only president to have gotten married at the White House.

White House bachelors are a rare breed. Most were widowers or lost their wives during their administrations. Only three presidents married during their time in office: John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson, and Cleveland. For Tyler and Wilson, it was a second marriage. Tyler married his bride, Julia, in New York. Wilson married his, Edith, at her home in Washington D.C.

Grover Cleveland’s status as a bachelor had been a cause for concern during his campaign. A sex scandal emerged during his 1884 run in which a woman named Maria Halpin claimed that she had had Cleveland’s baby out of wedlock. This was embarrassing for Cleveland, but ultimately his supporters shrugged it off as “boys being boys.” Halpin was sent to an insane asylum; the baby was put up for adoption. #MeToo, this wasn’t.

And this is where it gets weird. Maria Halpin’s baby was named Oscar Folsom Cleveland—a combination of Cleveland’s name, and the name of his best friend, Oscar. Oscar had a daughter named Frances. (Do you see where this is going? If not, spoiler alert: Cleveland marries her.) Frances was younger than Cleveland—much younger. They first met when Frances was a baby, and Cleveland was 27 years old. In fact, Cleveland bought his future bride her first baby carriage.

When Oscar died, Cleveland became the executor of his estate. As such, his ties to the Folsom family remained deep even after Oscar’s death. When Frances went to college, Cleveland asked her mother for permission to write her letters.

Frances Folsom Cleveland | Library of Congress

They began to correspond—and Cleveland made sure her dorm room at Wells College was filled with flowers. When Frances and her mother visited the White House, their correspondence bloomed into romance. They were married on June 2, 1886. Cleveland was 49; Frances was 21.

So let’s talk about that.

The Clevelands’ White House Wedding

Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom wed at the White House | Library of Congress

On May 28, 1886, the president had a surprise announcement for the country — in five days, he would marry Frances Folsom at the White House.

The invitation was short, to the point, and signed by the president:

“On Wednesday next at seven o’clock in the evening I shall be married to Miss Folsom at the White House.

We shall have a very quiet wedding, but I earnestly desire that [you] will be present on the occasion.”

Cleveland meant it when he said it would be a quiet wedding. Only 28 guests gathered on June 2nd, in the Blue Room at the White House, to witness the event.

“Accustomed as were the ladies gathered in the to the dazzle of rich costumes, they could barely restrain expressions of wonder and admiration at the beautiful picture presented by the bride,” the New York Times noted the next day. Frances wore a wedding dress with a six-foot long veil, decorated with orange blossoms, as popularized by Queen Victoria. During the ceremony, she promised to “honor, love, and keep” her new husband, as opposed to the traditional “honor, love, and obey.”

Frances Folsom Cleveland in her wedding dress | Library of Congress

By all accounts, Frances Folsom and Grover Cleveland had a happy marriage. They had five children together. And, here, we find another first: their daughter, Esther, was the first—and only—president’s baby to be born at the White House.

How Many Other People Have Gotten Married at the White House?

The Clevelands may be the only presidential couple to wed at the White House, but they’re far from the only couple. There have been eighteen weddings at the White House since Dolley Madison’s sister got married there in 1812.

Mostly, White House weddings have featured presidential relatives—sons, daughters, nieces, etc.

Richard Nixon and his daughter, Tricia, at her White House wedding in 1971 | Library of Congress

Only twice has a non-relative married at the White House. In 1942, Harry Hopkins—an assistant to Franklin Roosevelt—married at the White House. In 2013—the most recent White House wedding—Barack Obama’s photographer, Pete Souza, married in the Rose Garden.

Of course, there are some downsides to getting married at the White House. The attention is intense, your ceremony might be drowned out by protests—depending on what the president has done, lately—and the White House is, of course, a public place. When Jenna Bush got married in 2008, she opted to hold the ceremony at her parents’ ranch in Texas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Fascinating History of Black History Month

By Kaleena Fraga

As a site dedicated to presidential history, we spend most—read, almost all—of our time talking about white men. The United States has only had one Black president and the stories from Barack Obama’s two terms are still so recent that they rarely make it onto this site. (Although we did enjoy writing about his colorful presidential portrait.)

That being said, we’re going to dedicate this post to Black History Month—February—and, specifically, the man considered to be the “Father of Black History”: Carter G. Woodson.

The History of Black History Month

Gerald Ford was the first president to recognize Black History Month in 1976 | Library of Congress

So, first things first—and this will involve a few white presidents—how did Black History Month come into being?

Gerald Ford first recognized Black History Month in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. Ford encouraged Americans to: “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Subsequent presidents also acknowledged Black History Month and in 1986, Congress fortified it by law—calling upon the president to make an annual proclamation.

But presidents like Ford were only building on something that had been around for a long time—giving a platform to a movement that had begun in earnest at the beginning of the 20th-century.

Carter G. Woodson: The “Father of Black History”

Dr. Carter G. Woodson is considered to be the “Father of Black History” | U.S. National Park Service

Who was Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History”? Born in 1875, the son of former slaves, Woodson chased every educational opportunity that he could find. After years of balancing his schooling with work, Woodson earned a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Phd from Harvard University, both in history. During that time, Woodson noticed something peculiar and upsetting—a distinct lack of Black history in his curriculums.

To remedy this, Woodson—alongside the minister Jesse E. Moorland—founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH) in 1915. Their organization sought to promote the study of Black history and celebrate Black accomplishments.

“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson noted.

In 1926, the group decided to promote their mission with the creation of “Negro History Week.” Woodson chose the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Each year, the week would have a theme, which focused on topics like Black poetry, the addition of Black history to school curriculums, or a focus on Black luminaries like Douglass. This tradition continues to this day.

In his book, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), Woodson lay out his case for what was wrong with the current American education system. Education, he argued, was vital. “When you control a man’s thinking,” Woodson wrote, “you do not have to worry about his actions.” He pointed to the “mis-education” of Black people in America as a means of oppression. “The oppressor has always indoctrinated the weak with this interpretation of the crimes of the strong.”

Woodson faced a steep, uphill battle. By the 1960s, the most popular eighth-grade textbook included only two Black Americans’ names since the Civil War. Author James Baldwin noted that in his own schooling: “I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”

Woodson would have sympathized. He noted: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Representation in history is important.

This began to shift as the Civil Rights movement gained steam. A number of colleges and universities took Woodson’s Negro History Week and transformed it into Black History Month—which led to Ford’s address in 1976.

But the work is far from done.

White supremacy is, sadly, still a powerful presence in this country. Americans continue to grapple with issues like systemic racism, implicit biases, and even how we should evaluate our own history—looking at you, Confederate monuments.

Could transforming education change hearts and minds? Woodson thought so. He concluded that racial prejudice: “is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

That is, the erasure of Black accomplishments and lives in the past has a devastating effect on the present.

America’s first Black president agreed with this. According to his memoirs, A Promised Land, Barack Obama saw representation as one of the defining reasons to run for president. As he talked over the possibility of a run with friends and family, Michelle Obama asked him: “Why do you need to be president?”

President Obama bends to allow the son of a White House staff member to touch his head . The boy wanted to see if the President’s haircut felt like his own. May 2009. | The White House

Obama said: “There’s no guarantee we can pull it off. [But] I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that would be worth it.”

Happy Black History Month! We may have only had one Black president, but the American presidency is packed—packed—with Black stories. We’ll try to do a better job of including more of those here.

Some recent books that History First enjoyed that tell Black stories:

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Becoming by Michelle Obama

The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph

And *anything anything anything* by James Baldwin.

FDR’s First 100 Days

By Kaleena Fraga

On July 24, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his iconic radio addresses to the nation. In this address, Roosevelt referenced: “the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”

His administration had had a productive couple of months. In the first 100 days of his term—as the Great Depression raged—Roosevelt and his team jammed 15 bills through Congress. In the future, the first 100 days of subsequent presidents would be examined closely.

So, what were FDR’s first 100 days like? What did he accomplish?

FDR’s First 100 Days in Office

Like Joe Biden, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the helm of a country in crisis. In his first year in office, the American unemployment rate would reach its peak at around 25%. Over 12 million Americans were out of work.

Roosevelt equated fighting the Great Depression to fighting a war—an analogy that has also been used to describe the fight against coronavirus. Roosevelt said:

“I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Then he got to work.

Two days after his inauguration on March 4th, 1933, Roosevelt declared a national “bank holiday” to stem the tide of people trying to withdraw their money from failing banks. A few days later, he signed the Emergency Banking Act, which allowed banks to reopen if the government found them sound. Aware that the country could plunge into deeper crisis, Congress rushed the passage of the bill—even though there were no available copies to read.

On March 12th, FDR gave his first “fireside chat”—a radio address to the nation to explain his actions and to reassure Americans that it was safe to put their money in the bank.

Roosevelt gives his first “fireside chat”, March 12, 1933 | National Archives

“My friends,” Roosevelt said, “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks.”

He reassured the country that it was: “Safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.”

FDR’s direct communication worked. In the following weeks, Americans returned nearly a billion dollars to banks that the governments had declared sound. Raymond Moley, one of Roosevelt’s closest aides, remarked that “capitalism was saved in eight days.”

Roosevelt didn’t stop there. In the next 100 days—technically, 105—his administration would usher 15 bills through Congress. They had a three-pronged goal: to boost employment, to help Americans in rural states, and to enact financial reforms.

A year later, unemployment started to drop and the country’s GDP began to rise. Arguably, it would take the ultimate stimulus of WWII—and the ramping up of production—to end the Great Depression. But FDR brought relief to millions of Americans.

In his actions, FDR not only helped steer the United States away from crisis—he redefined the role of the federal government. Roosevelt believed it was a matter of “social duty” for the government to help where it could. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was well aware of this. A free-market capitalist, Hoover remarked that the 1932 election between Roosevelt and himself would be not: “a contest between two men” but “two philosophies of government.”

Roosevelt also erected a bar for future presidents to scale. His successors would face pressure to have a productive 100 days in office like he had.

What Have Other Presidents Done In the First 100 Days?

John F. Kennedy was well-aware of the pressure of his first 100 days when he became president in 1961. In his inauguration, Kennedy said: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

George W. Bush reluctantly attended a luncheon with lawmakers to mark his first 100 days in office—Bush saw 100 days as an arbitrary milestone—and noted: “We’ve had some good debates, we’ve made some good progress, and it looks like we’re going to pass some good law.”

Barack Obama, like Kennedy, remarked that the first 100 days of a presidency were only a starting point. “The first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference.”

Obama—like Roosevelt—had inherited a country in crisis, in the throes of the Great Recession. Obama’s first 100 days in office were pretty productive—he passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February, and started laying the groundwork to pass his healthcare bill.

Presidents may dislike the pressure to perform in their first 100 days—but it looks like the standard is here to stay. Simply Google “100 days” and you’ll find a glut of articles speculating about what Biden’s will look like. Time, US News, Fidelity, and NPR have all run pieces about Biden’s agenda for his first 100 days in office.

Ultimately, Kennedy had a point. The first 100 days of a presidency may set the tone. But presidencies are judged as part of a whole that’s much longer than 100 days—or even four or eight years.

When Gerald Ford Pardoned Richard Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

Former FBI director James Comey made waves recently when he suggested that Joe Biden may want to think about pardoning Donald Trump

Asked about the likelihood of a Trump pardon, Comey said that it could be a “part of healing the country.” He acknowledged that Trump might take it as “an admission of guilt” and refuse to accept.

When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, he faced a similar decision. Ultimately, Ford decided to pardon Nixon—to the outrage of many. The Ford pardon was so unpopular that it may have even cost him reelection.

So, how did Ford reach his decision? And how do Americans regard Ford’s pardon of Nixon today?

Why Did Ford Pardon Nixon?

American political history is full of odd honors—shortest presidency (William Henry Harrison); most impeachments (Donald Trump); etc—and Ford’s claim to fame is that he is the only unelected president. He was plucked from Congress when Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, and became president when Nixon followed suit in August 1974.

Gerald Ford, taking the oath of office following Richard Nixon’s resignation | Wikimedia Commons

Ford’s first week in office was bizarre. For the first 10 days of his presidency, he commuted from his family’s house in Alexandria, Virginia. All the while, he was weighing what to do about his predecessor.

Ford had been considering the possibility of a Nixon pardon since before he became president. Al Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, had approached Ford 10 days before Nixon’s resignation and proposed a deal—the presidency, in exchange for a pardon. That is, Nixon would step down if Ford promised a pardon. Ford said no.

Speaking later to Bob Woodward—who uncovered the Watergate scandal and writes prolifically about presidencies—Ford said, “It was a deal, but it never became a deal because I never accepted.”

When Ford was hastily sworn in following Nixon’s resignation, he called for unity. My fellow Americans,” Ford famously said, “our long national nightmare is over.”

He went on to say: “As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.”

But Watergate’s wounds were still fresh. Conflict raged over Nixon’s tapes and files, which the ex-president claimed as executive privilege; the House Judiciary Committee released their damning report on Nixon’s conduct; and Nixon’s lawyer claimed that his client could not receive a fair trial in the United States.

The White House counsel and a friend of Nixon, Leonard Garment, even feared that the former president might kill himself. On August 28th, he wrote Ford a memo which warned that: “The national mood of conciliation will diminish…the whole miserable tragedy will be played out to God knows what ugly and wounding conclusion.”

Garment urged Ford to pardon Nixon—and soon.

Ford had yet to make any decision. But an afternoon press conference pushed him toward issuing a pardon. He spent most of the session with the press deflecting questions about Nixon. Afterwards, Ford recalled thinking: “Every press conference from now on, regardless of the ground rules, will degenerate into a Q&A on, ‘Am I going to pardon Mr. Nixon?'”

Tw days later, Ford gathered a group of advisors in the Oval Office. “I’m very much inclined,” he told them, “to grant Nixon immunity from further prosecution.”

His reasons were varied. Ford thought it would be a “degrading spectacle” for a former president to go to prison and that the press would continue to drag out “the whole rotten mess” of Watergate.

His advisors largely agreed, but argued against pardoning Nixon so soon after Ford had assumed office.

Ford asked, “Will there ever be a right time?”

Ford Pardons Nixon

Ford announces the pardon of Nixon | Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

On September 8th, 1974—roughly one month into his presidency—Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.

“[Watergate] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” Ford said. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

Ford went on: “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquillity but to use every means that I have to insure it.”

He finished by saying, “Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.”

Ford then read a proclamation, and signed it, granting Nixon a presidential pardon.

A month later, Ford explained to Congress that his primary motivation in issuing the pardon was to help the nation close the door on Watergate.

“I was absolutely convinced…that if we had had [an] indictment, a trial, a conviction, and anything else that transpired after this that the attention of the President, the Congress and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we have to solve. And that was the principle reason for my granting of the pardon,” Ford said. He spoke with confidence, but later acknowledged that the pardon had been his most difficult domestic decision.

Ford speaks about the pardon to the House Judiciary Subcommittee | Library of Congress

Ford had another, less understood, reason to pardon Nixon. Benton Becker, who served as Ford’s lawyer at the time, explained in a 2014 panel that Nixon’s acceptance of Ford’s pardon acted as an admission of guilt. He cited Burdick vs. United States, a 1915 Supreme Court ruling in which the court decided that a pardon carried an “imputation of guilt”. Therefore, accepting a pardon was an “admission of guilt.”

Becker—who had the unenviable task of explaining this to Nixon—recalled that Nixon—after some convincing—agreed to the Court’s interpretation. Ford carried a part of the Burdick decision in his pocket after he left the White House, in case anyone asked him to explain the pardon.

How Did The Country React To Ford’s Pardon Of Nixon?

The immediate reaction to Ford’s announcement was outrage. Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward’s investigative partner, called Woodward and snarled: “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.”

Ford paid an immediate price for his actions. According to a series of Gallup polls, Ford’s approval rating dropped from 66% in early September to 50% later that month; by January 1975, he’d sunk to a 37% approval rating. In the months leading up to the 1976 election—which Ford would lose to Jimmy Carter, after fighting off Ronald Reagan during the Republican primaries—Gallup reported that 55% of Americans thought that Ford had done the wrong thing in pardoning Nixon.

But over time, opinions about Ford’s pardon of Nixon changed. Bernstein acknowledged in 2014 that Ford’s pardon had taken “great courage.” Woodward likewise called the pardon “an act of courage.” In 2001, Senator Ted Kennedy awarded Ford the “Profile in Courage” award at the John F. Kennedy Library. Kennedy recalled that he had come out against the pardon in 1974. “But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right,” Kennedy said. “His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

In 2006, Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and a Democrat wrote: “Did Ford make the right decision in pardoning his predecessor? The answer to that question is more nuanced than either the howls of outrage that greeted the pardon three decades ago or the general acceptance with which it is viewed now.”

That is—like most things in history—the ultimate legacy of Ford’s decision is complex.

Ford pardoned Nixon and paid the political price. Will Biden pardon Trump? Should he?

Some outlets, echoing Ford’s argument of national unity, say yes. The Baltimore Sun called the possibility of a pardon “tension calming.” The Independent went even further, calling a Biden-Trump pardon: “the only path forward.”

History does not repeat; but it does rhyme—and Trump and Nixon are not the same president. In a piece in the Dispatch, Professor Mary Stuckey of Penn State notes that: “There was no violence associated with Richard Nixon or Watergate.” The stakes, in other words, are different. Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton also notes that Ford pardoned Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal alone; a pardon of Trump would “[halt] further investigation and possible prosecution concerning the serious violation of several important federal laws arising from several distinct episodes dating back to the 2016 campaign.”

Biden may be eager to clear Trump from the American headspace, but Trump won’t be going anywhere for awhile—on January 19th, his impeachment trial is set to begin in the Senate.

That all but ensures that the first several days of Biden’s term will be cluttered with Trump news.

The First Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

By Kaleena Fraga

We’ve talked about awkward presidential transitions before—we even dove deep into the chilly exchange of power between Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But nothing quite tops Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860 was split between four men. Abraham Lincoln ran under the banner of the Republican party—a new organization which united Know-Nothings, Whigs, and others under one roof. The Republicans largely opposed the expansion—not the existence—of slavery.

(The party had denied William Seward the nomination. Seward had thundered against slavery, noting that Americans should answer to a “higher law” than the Constitution. The Republicans prefered Lincoln, a moderate from a battleground state.)

Shattered by questions around slavery, the Democrats were a party divided. Democrats in the north nominated Stephen Douglas. However, Democrats in the south nominated John C. Breckinridge, the current vice president. Senator John Bell also threw his hat into the ring, as the nominee for the new Constitutional Union party.

Facing a divided opponent, Lincoln easily swept to victory—even though Southern states omitted Lincoln from the ballot.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Library of Congress

“Well, boys,” Lincoln is alleged to have said to reporters after his victory, “your troubles are over now—but mine have just commenced.”

Lincoln’s “troubles” would be greater than he predicted.

The 1860 campaign had been bitter. Even though none of the candidates—except Douglas—openly campaigned, tensions skyrocketed over questions about slavery and its expansion. Newspapers in the South launched deeply racist attacks against Lincoln and, all the while, Southern states rumbled with the threat of secession.

Following Lincoln’s election, they made good on their threat. On December 20th, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more states followed. In February 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America.

Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 Inauguration

Days after Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln set out from Springfield to travel to Washington D.C.

He arrived in the city at the crack of dawn on February 23rd. Because of a possible assassination plot, Lincoln had taken a night train. Rumors, unfounded, quickly spread that the new president had snuck into the city in disguise.

On March 4th, he prepared for his inauguration. Inauguration Day always draws crowds, but a different kind of tension sparked the air in 1861. Elizabeth Keckley, a Black dressmaker and confidante of Mary Lincoln’s, wrote in her memoirs:

“The streets of the capital were thronged with people, for this was Inauguration day. . . Never was such deep interest felt in the inauguration proceedings as was felt today.”

As Lincoln made his way to the Capitol, he was surrounded by heavily armed cavalry. One reporter noted that the president’s carriage was “closely surrounded on all sides by marshals and cavalry, so as almost to hide it from view.”

A young Julia Taft—who would write about Lincoln as an adult—stood in the crowd with her mother. They took care to not get too close—it could be dangerous. She recalled that as they took their place on the edge of the crowd “a file of green-coated sharpshooters went through up to the roof. The whisper went round that they had received orders to shoot at any one crowding toward the President’s carriage.”

In Taft’s recollection, the crowd seemed hostile toward Lincoln. She heard a woman sneer: “There goes that Illinois ape, the cursed Abolitionist. But he will never come back alive.”

In his inaugural address, Lincoln struck a firm but moderate tone. He promised to not interfere with slavery where it existed, but warned that the federal government would “hold, occupy, and possess” its property. Secession, he told the crowd, was “the essence of anarchy.”

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861 | Library of Congress

Lincoln warned the South that if conflict were to break out, it would be because of their actions. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”

Lincoln ended his speech—at the suggestion of Seward, his new secretary of state—with “words of affection” toward the South. His words would echo through the ages:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

A little over a month later, shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Abraham Lincoln in 1865

Abraham Lincoln, before and after the Civil War | Reddit

The Civil War changed the country. It changed Abraham Lincoln. He was no longer a moderate from a battleground state; he was the commander-in-chief during a conflict that would kill 600,000 Americans. Lincoln went from assuring Border States that the war wasn’t about slavery to championing the Emancipation Proclamation.

By the time he was inaugurated for the second time in March 1865, the war had begun to limp to its bloody end. A Union victory was in reach.

“At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office,” Lincoln noted during his inauguration, “There is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.” He gave a short speech—about 700 words—denouncing slavery in searing, religious terms as figures like Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s soon-to-be-assassin, looked on.

Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 | Library of Congress

Just as he had four years earlier, Lincoln ended his speech with a call for peace and goodwill: “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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

It’s true—as Keckley said, and as Taft noted—that inauguration days are always fascinating affairs. The upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden is sure to strike a slightly different tone than normal, however.

The nation—rattled by the events of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol—awaits his swearing-in with apprehension. Despite possible threats that may exist, Biden has avowed that he is “not afraid” to take the oath of office outside.

Out with the old, in with the new—what will the Biden era bring?

What Did The World Look Like In 1921?

By Kaleena Fraga

Well, 2020 has been a wild ride. What will 2021 hold? Last year, we discussed what the world looked like in 1920—now, let’s take a look back at how things were in 1921.

Since we’re all about American presidents at HF, we’ll start with the presidency in 1921:

Who Was President in 1921?

Warren G. Harding in June 1920 | Library of Congress

In 1921—just as in 2021—there was a new man in the White House. In January 2021, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president, replacing Donald Trump. In March 1921, Woodrow Wilson left the White House, limping to the end of his term after a devastating stroke. He would be succeeded by Warren G. Harding.

Harding is considered by some to be one of America’s worst presidents. His administration was marked by impropriety (the Teapot Dome scandal) and Harding often admitted he felt overwhelmed by his duties. He once described himself as “a man of limited talents” and once said “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”

In fact, Harding may be better known for dramas that emerged after his presidency came to an early end—he died in office in August 1923 of a heart attack. Rumors quickly spread that his wife, Florence Harding, had had something to do with his death. She was the last person with him, she refused an autopsy, and she inherited his estate. Some speculated that she’d killed her husband to spare him from looming corruption charges.

Later, it came out that Ms. Harding may have had another reason to kill her husband: The president had been having an affair. In 2009, many of Harding’s love letters to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Philips, were published. The letters are…quite steamy.

William Howard Taft Attains His Goal

William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1925 | Library of Congress

William Howard Taft had a pretty great 1921. Taft had been president from 1909 to 1913—but all he’d ever really wanted was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His wife, Nellie, was behind his push into presidential politics. Taft was probably relieved when he lost his reelection bid in 1912, during a campaign that pitted him against his predecessor and former friend, Teddy Roosevelt.

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.”

In 1921, he finally achieved his goal. It had been a long time coming—he had been promised an appointment to the Supreme Court by President McKinley and by President Roosevelt. Other responsibilities had come his way, instead. And Nellie Taft wanted desperately for her husband to be president.

On October 3rd, 1921, Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

Franklin Roosevelt Develops Polio

Franklin Roosevelt (upper left) one year before developing polio | National Archives

In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was thirty-nine years old and on the upswing. After seven years in the Wilson administration (he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920) he’d been picked to run as James M. Cox’s vice president under the Democratic ticket. Roosevelt and Cox lost to Harding and Calvin Coolidge—but Roosevelt was young, healthy, and popular.

Then, illness struck. During the summer, Roosevelt began to develop strange symptoms—what started as lower back pain alarmingly progressed to the point where Roosevelt could no longer support his own weight. Doctors presented Roosevelt with a surprising diagnosis: he had infantile paralysis. Polio. At the time, there was no cure.

Roosevelt withdrew from the public sphere. But with the encouragement of his wife, Eleanor, and his doctor, he decided to reenter politics in 1924.

By 1932, Roosevelt would make another run for the presidency—this time, on top of the ticket. He would win that race, and the three that followed, to become the longest-serving president in American history.

What Was Life Like in the US in 1921?

The 1920s were the beginning of a wild and turbulent decade in America—and the world. After the pain of the First World War and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, an age of prosperity had swept into place.

This was the decade of Prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and extravagance—an era captured exquisitely by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.

It was also a decade of horrifying racial violence. By 1921, the Civil War had been over for a generation. But scars of the conflict remained. Some were invisible; some were all too prominent. Between 1900 and 1920, the country erected a wealth of Confederate monuments.

Smoke in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 | Library of Congress

In 1921, the Tulsa Massacre tore through the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the last days of May and into June, White mobs ravaged the Black neighborhood, destroying businesses and killing citizens. The attack destroyed more than 35 blocks of businesses—a wealthy stretch of town considered “Black Wall Street”—and killed perhaps as many as 300. It is considered to be the worst incident of racial violence in American history. Reports of the attack were subsequently suppressed—it would take nearly a century for full details to emerge.

Dramatic moments reigned from the beginning to the end of 1921. The year saw high moments of American comedy (Charlie Chaplin and The Kid) and status-quo-shattering change (The Republic of Ireland won its independence at the end of year). Quiet events in 1921 planted violent seeds—Adolf Hitler became the Führer of the Nazi party that July, and fascists gathered power in Italy.

What will 2021 hold? Minor events today could blossom into something unimaginable tomorrow. Last year certainly gave historians plenty to parse through. We’re betting that 2021 will be another eventful year.

Grover Cleveland: The Only President to Serve Non-Consecutive Terms

By Kaleena Fraga

At a White House Christmas party this week, President Trump mused out loud that he might run for president again in 2024.

“It’s been an amazing four years,” Mr. Trump said. “We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.” The crowd cheered.

If he were to run, and win, Donald Trump would become only the second president to serve two, non-consecutive terms. The first was Grover Cleveland, who was elected in 1884 and 1892, making him the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

Let’s get into it!

The Election of 1884: Cleveland vs. Blaine

Grover Cleveland as governor of New York | Wikimedia Commons

Grover Cleveland’s second election in 1892 certainly sets him apart in American history. But his first election was also noteworthy. In 1884, Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected since the Civil War.

Since Lincoln, the Republicans had retained the White House. But power seemed prime to shift in 1884. Cleveland—the governor of New York—was in a good position to carry his state. If he could win New York and the entire south, he could win the presidency.

What’s more, many Republicans disliked their own nominee: James G. Blaine. Anti-Blaine Republicans, called Mugwumps, were the #NeverTrumpers of their day. Blaine stood accused of using his office as Speaker of the House to obtain favors from the railroads. Mugwumps would not support their party’s nominee, warning that his election would “dishonor the nation.”

The Mugwumps made it clear that they were still Republicans—just not Blaine Republicans. “We do not ally ourselves with the Democratic party, still less sanction or approve its past” —a shot over the bow and a nod of the head toward the Civil War — “but its present candidate has proved his fidelity to the principles we avow…he commands and will receive our support.”

Democrats gleefully piled on. Soon, their campaign slogan echoed throughout the country: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The continental liar from the State of Maine.”

Republicans were not going to go without a fight. When it came out that Cleveland may have fathered an illegitimate child, they attacked with a slogan of their own: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”

An anti-Cleveland poster from the 1884 election | Wikimedia Commons

Cleveland admitted that he could be the child’s father. His supporters argued that, “Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations.”

The solution? Elect Cleveland and his integrity to the presidency—let Blaine return to his innocent public life.

A supporter of Blaine’s made things worse at a rally in New York City. Attempting to rouse the crowd, he accused the Democrats of being the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The city’s Irish Catholics, whom Blaine hoped to court, soured on the Republican candidate. (Blaine was not present—but did not denounce the remark, either.)

Antipathy toward Blaine and Cleveland’s New York roots helped propel the latter to the presidency. It was a narrow victory. Cleveland won New York—and, therefore, the presidency— by only 1,000 votes.

After the election, Democrats commandeered the Republican’s campaign slogan. “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” was now answered by: “Off to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

The Election of 1888: Cleveland vs. Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, circa 1896 | Library of Congress

In 1888, Cleveland faced Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was, in many ways, a more formidable foe than Blaine. He was a former Civil War general, a senator from Indiana, and the grandson of a president—William Henry Harrison, who is best known for dying one month into his presidency. Benjamin Harrison, however, had not been the party’s first choice. He won the nomination on the eighth ballot at the Republican convention.

Cleveland had also caused problems for himself. In December of 1887, he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs, believing them to be unfair to consumers. Cleveland was told that this would give the Republicans ammunition as they moved into 1888—tariffs were the issue of the day—but he didn’t care. “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?” Cleveland asked.

Indeed, the election of 1888 focused on what the two men stood for—instead of their moral failings. Republicans attacked Cleveland for his position on tariffs and for his aggressive use of the presidential veto, including the veto of a bill which denied pension increases to Civil War veterans.

By this time, the era of Lincoln Republicans had ended. Republicans of the 1880s were the party of big business. They found Cleveland and his ideas about tariff reductions incredibly threatening. So, they barnstormed the country. Republicans told voters that the Democrats did not understand money and that Cleveland’s reelection would cause people to lose their jobs. They also heavily emphasized their candidate’s political lineage, with campaign slogans like “The Same Old Hat – It Fits Ben Just Right.” (Democrats responded with their own slogan: “His Grandfather’s Hat – It’s Too big for BEN.”)

In the end, Harrison won the election. Cleveland lost his crucial state of New York as well as Harrison’s Indiana, which resulted in a lopsided Harrison victory—Harrison won the Electoral College but Cleveland won the popular vote. (47.9 percent to 48.6 percent.) That puts Cleveland in league with only four other candidates who have won more votes but lost the presidency: Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel Tilden (1876), Al Gore (2000), and Hillary Clinton (2016).

(For our purposes of comparing Cleveland to Trump, this is significant. Cleveland won the popular vote. Given Trump’s loss of both the Electoral College and the popular vote in 2020, it’s possible he’d face an uphill battle in 2024. Trump may, however, be interested to hear that the 1888 election was likely rife with corruption. Black votes were suppressed. Other votes were bought. In one anecdote, Harrison thanked Providence for his victory. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna, noted to a friend: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it. A number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him president.”)

As Cleveland left the White House, his wife Frances, turned to face the staff. “I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again,” she said. “We are coming back just four years from today.” 

Cleveland was down, but not out. Four years later, he’d run against Harrison for a second time.

The Election of 1892: Harrison vs. Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, circa 1892 | Library of Congress

According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, the Republicans moved aggressively after the election to ensure their hold on power. They had, after all, controlled the White House for decades. So, how to avoid another showing by a Democrat like Cleveland?

Add new states! That was the plan—add six new states, creating a Republican firewall. In 1889, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington joined the Union. In 1890, Idaho and Wyoming were established.

Republican operatives were sure this plan would work. But, as is wont in American politics, it backfired. In the 1890 midterm elections, the Democrats took the House of Representatives by a margin of 2:1. They swept to power bolstered by a bad economy and by the American West.

With the election of 1892 looming, Republicans threw their weight behind Harrison. But they weren’t happy with him. He could be cold and standoffish and refused to listen to advice. It’s possible that Harrison only ran for a second term out of spite—at the party convention, many Republicans tried to get James G. Blaine on the ticket instead of Harrison. Blaine refused.

After a quiet campaign, Cleveland swept to victory. For the first time since the Civil War, the Democrats won the presidency, the Senate, and the House.

We recently wrote about painful presidential transitions, and the Benjamin Harrison to Grover Cleveland transition deserves a place on that list. According to Richardson, it was the among the worst.

After his loss, Harrison threw up his hands. In Republican controlled newspapers, the embittered party told voters that Democrats didn’t know how to run the country—so everyone should take their money out of the stock market.

And thus began the Panic of 1893. Those who saw it coming begged Washington for help. But Harrison’s administration wouldn’t lift a finger. According to Harrison’s Treasury Secretary, they were only responsible for the economy until Cleveland’s inauguration.

In fact, the economy collapsed 10 days before Cleveland entered office. Cleveland was left to manage an economic crisis—which may have led him to regret returning to the presidency in the first place. According to the Miller Center, Cleveland left office a bitter man. When he died in 1908, his last words were “I have tried so hard to do right.”

What will happen in 2024? We don’t know—but it’s definitely too early for speculation. Or is it…?

Awkward Presidential Transitions

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 3rd, 2020 the United States had an election. By November 7th, it had a winner — and by November 23rd, a loser, when President Trump officially acknowledged the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency.

Now, January 20th, 2021 looms in the distance. What will the transition from Trump to Biden look like on Inauguration Day? If it’s awkward or stiff — or if Trump simply doesn’t show up — it would reflect a long tradition of a “chilly” January day.

Even before Inauguration Day moved to January 20th — it was previously held on March 4th but advances in transportation made assembling the new government easier and faster —presidential transitions were often awkward. John Adams left town before his once friend, now foe, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in in 1801. His son, John Quincy Adams, did the same on the day his rival Andrew Jackson took the oath of office in 1829. When Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated, he refused to share a carriage with the deeply unpopular Andrew Johnson. During Grant’s inauguration in 1869, Johnson remained in the White House.

Today, we’ll take a look back at a few other awkward presidential transitions in the 20th-century.

Harry Truman to Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Truman and President Elect Eisenhower, Jan. 20, 1953 | Library of Congress

When Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 election against Adlai Stevenson, he ended two decades of Democratic rule. And “Ike” had not just won—he swept to victory with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89.

Harry Truman, the incumbent, had worked with Eisenhower as World War II waned. Since then, their relationship had soured. Truman saw Eisenhower as dangerously anti-communist, especially since Eisenhower had done nothing publicly to denounce the rabble-rousing of Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower had planned to denounce the firebrand senator in a speech in Wisconsin, but backed out. Truman fumed: “[It was] one of the most shocking things in the history of this country. The trouble with Eisenhower . . . he’s just a coward . . . and he ought to be ashamed for what he did.”

Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Eisenhower to the White House after the election, but felt that the former general seemed unsuited to the job. Frustrated, Truman wrote that everything he said to Eisenhower “went in one ear and out the other.” Later, Truman mused that Eisenhower’s military background would prove a disadvantage, writing:

“He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

The former general, Truman noted coolly, “doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Eisenhower also felt frosty. He saw Truman as an inept leader surrounded by cronies. When discussing the upcoming inauguration, he wondered aloud if he could “stand” sitting next to Truman. Eisenhower had a solution for dealing with people he disliked. He wrote their names on index cards and filed them under “To Be Ignored.” The next eight years would prove that Eisenhower meant it—the two presidents had little contact during Eisenhower’s two terms in office. (When Eisenhower was in Missouri and Truman tried to set up a meeting, he was told that the president had no room in his schedule. Reportedly, Truman could not refer to Eisenhower in later years without using profanity.)

Neither man had thawed by Inauguration Day. The clear, simmering hatred between the two was “like a monsoon”, according to White House advisor Clark Clifford. There were petty arguments over what kind of hats to wear—Eisenhower, without alerting Truman, wore a Homburg (similar to a fedora) instead of a silk top hat—and Eisenhower refused to enter the White House before he was sworn in, which meant he declined Truman’s invitation for a pre-inauguration cup of coffee

In fact, Eisenhower refused to even get out of the car. One CBS correspondent called it a “shocking moment.” The White House head usher, J.B. West, said “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.”

But despite the animosity between Eisenhower and Truman, Truman had gone out of his way to make Eisenhower’s inauguration special. Without Eisenhower knowing, Truman had invited the general’s son, John, to temporarily leave his post in Korea to see his father sworn in.

Eisenhower asked Truman who had invited John back. According to Eisenhower, Truman replied, “I did.”

Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan

President Reagan is sworn in. President Carter stands nearby. Jan. 20, 1980 | Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 by setting himself up as the opposite of Jimmy Carter. Instead of “malaise” you had “Morning in America“.

The two men had traded razor-sharp barbs during the campaign. Carter suggested that Reagan was a racist who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. Reagan quipped, “The conduct of the presidency under Mr. Carter has become a tragic-comedy of errors. In place of competence, he has given us ineptitude.” Reagan claimed the country’s economic recovery couldn’t start until Carter lost his job.

The transition, then, was unsurprisingly tense. When the two men met after the election to discuss national security, Reagan listened without comment and took no notes — much to Carter’s chagrin. During the meeting, Carter noted that being president was different than being governor (a role both men had had). For one thing, CIA briefings started at 7am. Regan smiled and said, “Well, he’s sure going to have to wait a long while for me.” Carter was unamused. Reagan didn’t care. He wanted “nothing to do” with Carter.

Reagan’s family did nothing to thaw tensions. A rumor came out that Nancy Reagan had asked if the Carters could move out out of the White House early—so that she could redecorate. Reagan’s son, Ronald, told the press he wouldn’t shake President Carter’s hand because “[Carter] has the morals of a snake.”

On Inauguration Day, Carter cut a weary figure. He had been up for forty-eight hours attempting to free the American hostages in Iran — who had been held in captivity for 444 days.

As they rode in a limousine together on the morning of Reagan’s inauguration, Carter was quiet, deep in thought about the hostages. Several hours earlier, he’d informed his successor that their release was imminent—indeed, they would be released that day. Reagan filled the silence. Later, Carter called Reagan’s anecdotes “remarkably pointless.” One story involved a former studio executive named Jack Warner and as Carter emerged from the car he muttered to an aide, “Who is Jack Warner?”

During Reagan’s presidency, the two men continued to attack each other. Reagan often invoked Carter to show how bad things used to be. “Remember, we were told it was a malaise, and we just had to get used to doing with less?” Reagan said during his presidency. “Well, the people knew different.” Carter also did not restrain from critiquing Reagan’s performance as president.

Still, when Carter opened his presidential library, he invited his former foe to the dedication ceremony. Reagan agreed—perhaps out of presidential duty. One of his staffers quipped that it would be strange to see the two men together, “kind of like mixing peanuts and jelly beans.”

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush (the Staff)

George W. Bush is sworn in, Jan. 20, 2001 | Wikimedia Commons

The transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was fairly civil—especially given the controversy of the 2000 election, which came down to a recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision.

There were a few instances of awkwardness. When President Clinton invited President-Elect Bush to coffee at the White House, Clinton arrived 10 minutes later. This irritated Bush, who was so punctual that he often locked doors once a meeting had begun. What’s more, Clinton also invited his vice president—Bush’s campaign rival, Al Gore.

But the real tension came from Clinton’s White House staff. Angered by remarks by Bush during the campaign—especially his insistence that he would restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office—they did their best to make life difficult for their replacements.

The Washington Post reported that departing Clinton staffers left quite a welcome for the Bush people, including scattered bumper stickers, obscene voicemail greetings, damaged furniture, dismantled keyboards (some people removed the “W” from their keyboards), vaseline smeared on desks, unplugged refrigerators, writing on the wall, missing TV remotes, telephones and drawers glued shut, and locks smashed.

One Bush staff member described the office space as “filthy” and one room contained a “malodorous stench.” The Clinton people left behind “unopened beer and wine bottles, a blanket, shoes, and a T-shirt with a picture of a tongue sticking out on it draped over a chair.

One Clinton staffer admitted gleefully to what they had done, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that he had: “left a voicemail greeting on his telephone indicating that he would be out of the office for the next four years due to a decision by the Supreme Court.”

The prank cost the government somewhere between $13,000 and $14,000 to fix.

The campaign of 2020 was certainly a bitter one—even to the end. So, it’ll be interesting to see how President Trump leaves and how President Biden arrives. Will it be as frosty as Eisenhower and Truman? Or will Mr. Trump take a page out of the Adams’ book, and skip town before the celebrations begin?

When Presidents Hide Health Scares

Hmmm…I wonder why this subject has come to mind. In any case, presidents have a tendency to hide their health concerns from the American public. We take a look at two examples of American presidents who hid health scares.

Woodrow Wilson’s Stroke (1919)

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, June 1920 | Library of Congress

One of the most striking moments of obfuscation from the White House belongs to Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, the president suffered a devastating stroke.

On September 3rd, the president had embarked on a country-wide train trip. He wanted to convince his fellow Americans to support the League of Nations. During the trip, Wilson’s health suffered. He lost his appetite and his asthma began to bother him.

On September 25th, Wilson took a turn for the worse. His wife, Edith, noticed that her husband’s facial muscles were twitching and Wilson complained of nausea and a splitting headache. On September 26th, Wilson’s speaking tour was canceled. On October 2nd, back at the White House, the president suffered a devastating stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

Although news of the president’s stroke began to come out in February 1920, most Americans did not realize its severity. They didn’t realize that—as Wilson struggled to recover—his wife had taken over as de facto president. After all, this was decades before the 25th amendment would put a process in place for what to do when the president is incapacitated.

Edith Wilson, who described her role as a “stewardship” denied that she made any decisions on her own. But she admitted that she decided “what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

Grover Cleveland’s Jaw Surgery (1893)

President Grover Cleveland print, 1884 | Library of Congress

Grover Cleveland, who holds the amusing honor of being the only American president to serve two, non-consecutive terms, also hid his health problems from the nation.

Shortly after his inauguration—his second, that is, in 1893, eight years after his first—Cleveland noticed a strange rough spot on the roof of his mouth. A few months later it had grown in size and his doctor confirmed what Cleveland feared. The president had cancer. “It’s a bad looking tenant,” Cleveland’s doctor told him. “I would have it evicted immediately.”

Cleveland knew he would have to hide his condition from the public. In 1893, a considerable stigma existed around cancer, called the “dread disease.” In addition, Cleveland feared that revealing his illness would send the already suffering economy into a tailspin.

The solution? Cleveland told the public that he was going on a fishing trip. And although the president would spend a few days on a yacht, he would not be doing any fishing. Doctors had been summoned to remove the cancer from his mouth.

During the 90-minute surgery, a team of six surgeons aboard a moving vessel extracted the tumor, five of Cleveland’s teeth, and a section of the president’s left jawbone. They did this through the roof of the president’s mouth—which left no marks to alert the public. Indeed, keeping Cleveland’s famous moustache intact was a stipulation of the surgery.

The American public was kept entirely in the dark. When an astute journalist named E.J. Edwards published the truth of the matter in the Philadelphia Press, the president and his team firmly denied it. The public turned against Edwards, labeling his story a “deliberate falsification.”

Edwards’ reputation was in tatters—but, twenty-four years later, he would be redeemed. In 1917, one of the surgeons from the boat acknowledged that Edwards had been right, noting that the journalist had been, “substantially correct, even in most of the details.”

By then, however, Cleveland had left office and died of a heart attack.

Other examples of American presidents hiding their illnesses abound throughout the country’s history. John F. Kennedy struggled with Addison’s disease and back issues. Some close to Ronald Reagan—including his own son—claim that the president suffered from Alzheimer’s while in office, although the majority of those close to Reagan deny this.

Franklin Roosevelt also presents an interesting case. Despite a persistent belief that he hid his polio from the public, the president’s condition was not a secret—newspapers had published articles that included information about his wheelchair and leg braces. The president’s disability was discussed often.

However, Roosevelt believed it was important that Americans did not see him in a wheelchair. He wanted Americans to believe that he was capable. That’s why he would stand to give a speech, even at great cost to himself. (If you look at photos of Roosevelt speaking while standing, you may notice how tightly he grips the edges of the podium.)

Roosevelt also asked the press to avoid taking photographs of him walking or being transferred into a car. They didn’t always follow the rules. But if someone did snap a photograph of Roosevelt that the president didn’t like, the Secret Service leapt into action.

In 1936, Editor & Publisher reported just how the Secret Service would react to an aggressive photographer—by taking the camera and tearing out the film. In 1946, the White House photography corps backed this up. They acknowledged that if they took the kind of photographs that the president had asked them to avoid, they would have “their cameras emptied, their films exposed to sunlight, or their plates smashed.”

In any case, hiding health scares seems to be a strong tradition among American presidents. It makes sense. It’s easy to draw a line between the health of the nation and the health of its executive.