RIP George Washington, and the Tradition of Life Masks

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The Houdon bust

Today, December 14, 2017 is the 218th anniversary of the death of America’s first president, George Washington. At the time, for the many people who loved and admired George Washington, it wouldn’t be the last time they saw his face. Not only had countless portraits been made of the man but he’d also had a life mask made by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. Houdon also created the (perhaps more well known) terracotta bust of Washington.

Washington was reportedly fascinated by the process. Houdon had been brought to Mount Vernon by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and spent two weeks there to observe Washington’s mannerisms and dress. Although the process was uncomfortable for Washington (it involved lying flat on his back, with two large quills up his nose so he could breathe–read more here) it probably traumatized his young granddaughter Nelly, who walked in on the creation of the mask.

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Perhaps this experience is why Jefferson looks so strained

He certainly had a better experience with it than Jefferson, who reportedly almost died while having his own life mask fitted by John H.I. Browere. Browere left the mask on for an hour, instead of the customary twenty minutes. Jefferson, unable to breathe, had to bang his fist against a nearby chair to draw attention to his plight. Afterwards he wrote his friend James Madison:

“I was taken in by Mr. Browere…He was obliged to use freely the mallet and chisel to break [the mask] into pieces and get a piece at a time…I was quite shaken, and there became real danger that the ears would leave from the head sooner than from the plaster.”

Jon Meacham writes (again from his Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) that it was Jefferson’s butler, Burwell Colbert, who heard the ruckus and alerted Browere. Jefferson, Meacham notes, was saved by a slave.

Interestingly, the life mask of John Adams (Jefferson’s frenemy) was also created by Browere.

The practice didn’t die out after the Founding Fathers’ generation. Abraham Lincoln also underwent the process–twice. The first was done in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected to the presidency, by Leonard Volk. The second was made five years later, in 1865, by Clark Mills. Five hard years–the weight of the presidency, the Civil War, the death of his son, Willie–are clearly etched on his face. Two months after the mask was made, Lincoln would be killed by an assassin’s bullet.

With the invention of the photograph, this style of remembrance has gone out fashion. Celebratory busts and portraits aside, life masks seem to reveal something much more human in these extraordinary men.

Let’s Take a Break and Talk Jefferson

Politics lately have been exhausting. So let’s take a break and talk about Thomas Jefferson and his oddities.

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Somewhere in this estate is a floor with a groove

Jefferson liked to wake himself up in the morning by sticking his feet in cold water. He thought this would keep him healthy. Jon Meacham, in his Jefferson biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, notes that this habit “wore a groove on the floor next to the alcove where he slept.” Since Jefferson lived to be 83 at a time when most men died before 40, maybe he was onto something.

Jefferson kept several mockingbirds as pets. His favorite was called “Dick.” The bird would perch on his shoulder, follow him up the stairs, and sit on his couch while Jefferson napped. Lucia Stanton, a Jefferson scholar, noted that the bird’s name was somewhat disappointing, given Jefferson’s tendency to give his horses more noble names (some highlights: “Allycrocker”, “Peggy Waffington”, “Remus and Romulus”, “Zanga”, Polly Peacham”)

An agrarian at heart, who saw this as the future of the new United States, Jefferson once committed international espionage in order to introduce a superior crop to American soil. As the Minister to France, he saw that Italian rice outsold American rice. Since he believed that, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s [sic] culture,” Jefferson went to Italy and literally put handfuls of the rice in his pockets to bring back to the United States. At the time, such an act was punishable by death.

A less fun fact about Jefferson concerns Sally Hemings. Many know of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings–if it can be called that, since, as he had all the power and she had none, there really wasn’t a question of consent on her part–but there’s another, fascinating layer to this. Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died when she was 33. He was 39. Martha asked that he never marry again, and Jefferson didn’t. He began his infamous relationship with Hemings instead–Martha’s half sister.

 

Compromise & Harmony: Lincoln on Peacekeeping

By Duane Soubirous

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser–in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.”

Today’s quote comes from a lecture Abraham Lincoln delivered to lawyers, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to heed Lincoln’s advice.

In today’s political climate, it’s easy to get trapped in a bubble, whether that is on social media or in real life. People tend to consume news that reinforces their already held beliefs. With a screen as a shield, they will defend these beliefs tooth and nail. Lincoln, albeit long before the Twitter era, warned that self-righteousness and stubbornness can bring about costly litigation or resentment. Is it not better to concede how the other person might be misunderstood and offer a compromise, than to declare your righteousness and demand the other party concede everything?

In between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, many states in the Deep South seceded and seized control of federal property, with no objections whatsoever from President Buchanan. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had to choose between stating that he would reclaim property already lost, or that he would only defend property still controlled by the government.

Lincoln would have been constitutionally correct if he affirmed his right to reclaim stolen assets, but his advisors worried that taking an offensive stance would immediately unite the Upper South with the Deep South against the Union. In the end, he proclaimed during his inaugural that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” federal property, not reclaim it.

Lincoln took a conciliatory tone again when he addressed the president’s unilateral authority to appoint federal officers. If locals objected to Lincoln’s appointees, he said he would not force those “obnoxious strangers” upon the locals.

Stephen A. Douglas

The inaugural address worked, if only temporarily. Stephen A. Douglas, a candidate in the 1860 presidential election whose platform called for national unity over slavery restrictions, thought the speech “would do much to restore harmony to the country.”

To criticism from abolitionist hard-liners that Lincoln was conceding too much to secessionists, Lincoln wrote that it “was sometimes better for a man to pay a debt he did not owe, or to lose a demand which was a just one, than to go to law about it.” Even in deeply divided times, Lincoln sought the middle road. He wanted to unite the country, and aimed to ease, not exacerbate, the growing tensions. 

The Presidency & the Power of Nature

When considering the power of the presidency in the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt is often the first name that comes to mind. Rightly so. After touring the Grand Canyon in 1903, during a national debate over preserving the land or using it to mine precious medals, he insisted:

“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it…Keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

He said it would be a tragedy to cut down the great redwoods of California to make decks or porches. To those who advocated progress over preservation, he stated that:

“There is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.”

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Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon

Yet we would be remiss to forget Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of conservation. Although it’s largely a given today that first spouses will work on projects of their own, Lady Bird was the first person to put this into practice. She decided to pursue something that made her “heart sing.” As a little girl, Lady Bird had grown to deeply love the outdoors, and especially the flowers from her native Texas.

Although she’d never particularly liked the term, thinking it too indicative of cosmetics, the project became known as beautification. Writing in her journal in 1965, Lady Bird explained why she thought the project so important: “All the threads are interwoven– recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”

Lady Bird believed, simply, that people would be happiest surrounded by trees and flowers and greenery (she was right). Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson took the project national with the Highway Beautification Act–an attempt to clean up the nation’s highways, and take down the billboards. Although watered down, the bill did pass. Lady Bird also focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington D.C.

Lady Bird
Lady Bird at the Wildflower Center

After LBJ’s presidency had ended, and after he had died, Lady Bird continued to work on the project. In 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Researcher Center in Austin, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her eighty-fifth birthday. Although it started with Lady Bird’s donation of sixty acres, the Center now stretches across 284 acres and contains more than 800 kinds of native Texas plants.

Preserving nature and protecting federal lands wasn’t always a partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican. Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were Democrats. Richard Nixon, whose administration created the EPA, was a Republican. Given that Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the executive the power to protect federal land as a monument, and Lady Bird believed so strongly in the importance of beauty and nature, one has to wonder what they would think about the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bear’s Ear Monument by eighty-five percent. Trump, no stranger to unprecedented moments, is the first president to seek to modify a natural monument since the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906.

Special thanks to Betty Boyd Caroli’s “Lady Bird & Lyndon” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism” for providing the background for this post.

The 25th Amendment

William H. Harrison on His Death Bed with Visitors
William Henry Harrison, weeks after his inauguration

Between 1789 and 1967 eight presidents died in office. In 1841, the death of the first president to die in office, William Henry Harrison (a short but tragic tale for another time) raised the question of succession in the event of the executive’s demise. Amidst the confusion, Harrison’s vice president, John Tyler, had to insist that the president’s death meant that he became president, not just “acting president.”

Still, it took the country another one hundred and twenty-six years to formally add an amendment to the constitution outlining the path of succession, and what to do if the president became unable to perform his duties.

It wasn’t as if the question wasn’t raised again–in the time after Harrison’s death until the adoption of the amendment in 1967, four presidents were assassinated, three died in office, and others suffered medical conditions that rendered them incapable to serve. Without clear guidelines, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke made his wife the most powerful woman in America. President Eisenhower, his VP Nixon, and the Attorney General at the time, Herbert Brownell Jr., tried to clarify the procedure after Ike’s heart attack–Nixon would preside over Cabinet meetings when Eisenhower was indisposed, but never assumed power.

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LBJ is sworn in following JFK’s assassination

The issue became more urgent after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Given that his death had elevated Lyndon Johnson to the presidency (a man who had a history of heart problems) there was a pressing need to spell out what should happen if LBJ died or became unable to preside as president.

What does the 25th amendment do? Several things.

First, it reaffirms John Tyler’s actions: if the president dies, resigns, or is removed from office, power is transferred to the vice president.

Second, it allows the president to nominate a vice president if the original VP leaves office for whatever reason (this was an issue in 1868 during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment hearing, since he had no vice president. At the time, it was customary to wait for the next election if a VP left office. It was invoked for the first time in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned as Nixon’s VP. Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to replace him).

Third, the president can send an official notice to Congress saying he is unable to perform his duties, and another note when he is ready to resume (as in the case of a medical procedure–George W. Bush invoked this section in 2002). In the interim, the vice president has the powers of the president.

Fourth, if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet or Congress believe that the president is unable to perform his duties, they can remove him from power. This is the only section that has never been invoked.

 

 

Moderation in a Splintering Society: Lincoln on the Power of Listening

By Duane Soubirous

1840s Abe
Abraham Lincoln circa 1840, pre-beard

This post is the first of many dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes come from Michael Burlingame’s two-volume biography titled Abraham Lincoln: A Life. In the Author’s Note, Burlingame wrote that Lincoln’s character “can be profitably emulated by all.” To spare History First visitors from reading the entire biography (but if you have the time, I can’t recommend the books highly enough!), I have picked quotes and added commentary that will illustrate Lincoln’s political views and personal advice.

Here’s a quote from the 1840s, before he was elected to his sole term in the House of Representatives.

“It is an old and true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

While abolitionists employed fiery rhetoric against slaveowners and called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves, Lincoln spoke with moderation. He said that Northerners and Southerners were different only in the circumstances of their upbringing: had Northerners been born into slaveholding families, they too would fiercely defend slavery.

Lincoln ran for president on an antislavery, not abolitionist, platform. He denounced the institution of slavery without demonizing slaveholders. He advocated for a gradual extinction of slavery and supported a plan where the government would compensate slaveholders for emancipation, angering abolitionists who believed the government shouldn’t fund the evil institution of slavery. Lincoln told crowds that he was committed only to executing the first step: stopping slavery from expanding, containing it to states where it was already legal.

William Lloyd Garrison's
William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator”

Given that states began seceding before Lincoln was even inaugurated, it would seem that Lincoln might as well have echoed abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote, “NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS.” Lincoln’s strategy may have worked today, where voters can pull out smartphones and watch candidates’ speeches anywhere. Presidential candidates in Lincoln’s time relied on newspapers to spread their message, and the Southern press heavily distorted Lincoln’s message. They sounded the alarm that a President Lincoln would call on slaves to kill their masters, impregnate white women, and turn America into nation of mulattos.

Lincoln held firm to his belief that slavery was morally wrong, but he also recognized the importance of discussing its eradication with abolitionists and slaveowners, neither of which he aligned with. In the midst of the secession crisis he even signaled that he was open to compromise in his stance against the expansion of slavery. That wasn’t enough for slaveowners, and by refusing to concede a little, they ended up losing a lot.

 

93 years, 166 days

Last week, President George H.W. Bush became the oldest living president in American history, at 93 years, 166 days old.

He’s beaten Gerald Ford, who died at 93 years, 165 days.

Jimmy Carter, also 93, is 111 days younger than H.W.

Ronald Reagan also lived to be 93.

So far, no president has lived to the ripe age of 94. But quite a few have made it into the 90s, starting with John Adams, who died at the age of 90 in 1826 (meaning he witnessed every presidency between George Washington and his own son, John Quincy Adams). Herbert Hoover also lived into his 90s.

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Well, we got 5 of them (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush)

A great tidbit gleaned from this week’s research is this: the greatest number of presidents alive at the same time is six. This has happened four times. The first time was between 1861 and 1862, when Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln were alive. The second time was between 1993 and 1994 (when Nixon died). The living presidents for those two years were Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The third features more or less the same crowd between 2001 and Reagan’s death in 2004–Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W., Clinton, and George Bush. Today, Carter, H.W., Clinton, Bush, Obama & Trump make up the fourth six.