“A Mistake”: Roosevelt, Reagan, and the American Apology

By Kaleena Fraga

Governments often recognize wrongdoing, but rarely issue an official apology. When U.S. President Barack Obama puts arm around Japanese PM Abe after they laid wreaths in front of cenotaph as the atomic bomb dome is background at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, JapanPresident Barack Obama visited Japan in 2016, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but stopped short of officially apologizing for the United States’ actions. Japanese leaders similarly visited Pearl Harbor, but did not apologize for the attack that drew the United States into WWII.

Apologies are political tools, and are used sparingly. In its history, the United States has only apologized for five things, including the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Although these camps are largely referred to as “internment camps” the Japanese American community prefers “concentration camps” and, indeed, that’s what Franklin Roosevelt called them at the time.

After Pearl Harbor, public sentiment had turned hostile toward Japanese Americans, most of whom lived on the West Coast. Despite a lack of hard evidence that Japanese Americans were a threat, one West Coast commander insisted that didn’t mean that they couldn’t become a threat. This new hostility grew from an already established animosity toward Japanese Americans, who many white citizens felt were taking their jobs and threatening a cultural shift.

Top politicians in California, the entire military leadership, and nearly Roosevelt’s entire Cabinet insisted that the president must act. Roosevelt accepted the “military necessity” of action, and signed Executive Order 9066, which would forcibly remove all people of Japanese descent (anyone with 1/16 or more Japanese ancestry) from any region that the government designated as a military zone. This included California, the western half of Washington state and Oregon, and the southern part of Arizona. It would effect more than one hundred thousand people, many of them children. During the war 10 people would be accused of spying for Japan–none of whom were Japanese-Americans. According to one story, there was an act of sabotage perpetrated by a Japanese American farmer. When he was told to leave his farm to be relocated, he asked for an extension to farm his strawberries. When this request was denied, he destroyed his field. Strawberries, the government said, were necessary to the war effort, so the farmer was arrested for sabotage.

eleanor roosevelt in AZ
ER visiting a camp in Arizona

There was one person in FDR’s inner circle who fought the decision. Eleanor Roosevelt praised Japanese Americans as patriots, and later visited a concentration camp in Arizona. After the war she wrote that “emotions ran too high, too many people wanted to wreak vengeance on Oriental looking people. There was no time to investigate families or adhere strictly to the American rule that a man was innocent until he is proved guilty.”  Her husband later expressed regret as well, but there’s little evidence that he took Eleanor’s concerns seriously at the time.

Few did. In a Gallup poll in 1942, only 35% of respondents thought that Japanese-Americans should be allowed to return to their homes on the West Coast after the war. The only West Coast newspaper to oppose internment came from the little community of Bainbridge Island, Washington, one of the first touched by Order 9066. The papers’ co-editors, Walt and Mildred Woodward, wrote that they hoped the Order “will not mean the removal of American-Japanese citizens…they have the right of every citizen: to be held innocent and loyal until proven guilty.”

John Tateishi, who was three when his family was relocated, later led the push for a formal apology from the United States government. He spent eight years lobbying for such an apology, noting that such a demand was polarizing even within the Japanese-American community. “We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country,” Tateishi said.  “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.”

In 1980, Congress established a commission on the camps. It ultimately decided that the Order was a “grave injustice” motivated by “racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failurereagan NYT of political leadership.” Eight years later, Reagan signed a bill to send each surviving internee $20,000 and an apology from the American government. Reagan, who initially opposed the apology as “left-over Carterism” grew to support it. However an attorney working with Japanese American families to overturn wartime evacuation order violations suggested that that “the President would not have signed the bill absent some political imperative,” and that he was courting Japanese-American voters.

A spokesman for the Japanese American Citizens League said that while money ”could not begin to compensate a person for his or her lost freedom, property, livelihood or for the stigma of disloyalty,” it proved the sincerity of the government’s apology.

At the signing of the bill, Reagan himself noted:

“It’s not for us today to pass judgement upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake.

No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

American Presidents & Royal Weddings

By Kaleena Fraga

Royal wedding fever swept the world last week as Prince Harry of England married Meghan Markle, an American actress. Alongside the nuptials were questions in the United States surrounding the invitations–would Donald Trump merit an invite? Would former president (and friend to the groom) Barack Obama?

In the end, neither attended. This in itself isn’t unusual. Over the past several royal weddings, American presidents have sent notes of congratulations or perhaps a high-level envoy, but have never attended  themselves.

In 1947, President Harry Truman sent a notes of congratulations following the engagement of Elizabeth & Phillip to both the bride-to-be and her parents, the King and Queen of England. There’s no indication that Truman was invited or sought to attend.

truman telegram to king

Instead, Truman assigned an envoy to represent the U.S. government at the wedding, the ambassador to Great Britain Lewis Douglas.

Neither President Eisenhower or his wife Mamie were invited to the next royal wedding, that of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, in 1960. The American ambassador to the U.K had to convince the president to send a gift. Eisenhower objected because he’d never received any formal notification, but eventually followed his ambassador’s advice and sent a “small wedding ring ashtray.”

The next royal wedding was in 1981, when Queen Elizabeth’s son Charles married Diana Spencer. Ronald Reagan did not attend, although it appears he was invited. He sent the first lady, Nancy Reagan, to represent his administration. The New York Times speculated that President Reagan did not want the wedding to be his first trip to Europe.

Nancy Reagan created a bit of a stir in Great Britain, where one tabloid dedicated its Royal wedding 1981 - Nancy Reaganfront page to her decision to not bow to the Queen. The Guardian expressed irritation at her refusal to reveal any details about her wedding outfit until 24 hours before Diana released hers. And Nancy Reagan’s presence also prompted speculation of where she would sit during the ceremony. “I can’t image she’d be in the front row,” said a palace spokeswoman at the time. “Obviously, there are lots of other people besides Nancy Reagan coming.”

At Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, no heads of state were invited, so the Obamas did not attend. However, the lack of invitation did release a fury of speculation as to whether or not it was a “snub” of the American president. The Daily Mail noted that since Prince William was not yet heir to the throne, his wedding was not a state occasion. As such, it was normal that heads of state were not invited.

There does seem to be somewhat of a tradition regarding gifts–President Truman and President Reagan both sent the respective newlyweds Steuben glass bowls. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, however, requested donations to seven charities of their choice in lieu of gifts. Accordingly, Donald & Melania Trump confirmed via a White House spokeswoman that they will be making such a donation.

America Needs a John Quincy Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and the son of the nation’s second, had a reputation as a prickly, aloof man. He was a one-term president and by no means a popular one–yet he came to be seen as a man of iron principle and honesty, even in the face of political pressure from his own party. Politicians of his ilk are largely missing from the political landscape today.

I: Switching Parties

Adams, the son of one of America’s most prominent Federalists, entered the Senate in 1803 as a Federalist himself. Yet he remained distant from his colleagues. In an era of hyper-partisanship in which Federalists accused the Republicans of colluding with France, and the Republicans accused the Federalists of colluding with England (sound familiar?) Adams stubbornly trod his own path. He supported both President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the administration’s hardline on England, which his fellow Federalists opposed. His father, former president John Adams wrote:

“You are supported by no Party. You have too honest a heart, too independent a Mind and too brilliant Talents to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any Man who is under the Dominion of Party Maxims or Party Feelings.”

His stubborn refusal to fall in line with the Federalists, and his support of Jefferson, cost Adams his seat in the Senate, his place in the party, and many friends back in Boston. To Adams, it was a matter of principle, and a matter of what he thought was right and wrong according to the U.S. Constitution.

This sort of political courage is rare in Washington today. To be fair to today’s politicians, the landscape has changed. There is pressure from lobbyists, constituents on social media, and from within the party itself to toe the party line. Political purity tests are the cause celebre of today, and politicians that stray too far from the party line face possible challenges from the left or right of their own parties. It’s doubtful that Adams–with his iron will and stubborn personality–would be swayed. But it’s also likely that he’d never make it to Congress (or the presidency) in the first place.

II: As President 

John Quincy Adams’s presidency spanned a divisive time in American. After the relative political tranquility of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’s presidencies–“the Era of Good Feelings”–, in which the Republicans enjoyed almost unanimous support, Adams entered office as the country’s political unity began to fray. The nature of campaigning had also begun to change–in the day of George Washington, a man had to practically be dragged to the presidency by his fellow citizens. In John Quincy Adams’ day, it was becoming permissible for a man or his friends to campaign actively.

The electoral system in America of the 1820s had begun to evolve as more states joined the union, and although there wasn’t a uniform way of voting, regular people had more of a sway than ever before. Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, supported this democratic uprising. The fact that Adams entered office in 1824 under the auspice of a “corrupt bargain”–Jackson won the most electoral votes, but not a majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was alleged to have struck a deal with Henry Clay–only increased the divide between the two parties.

John Dickerson’s piece for the Atlantic The Hardest Job in the World postulates that the presidency has become a beast unmanageable for one man, and that the current system of campaigning rewards skills that aren’t necessary applicable or important to the presidency once he/she is in the office. Campaigning rewards skills like charisma and debate; the office requires management and governance. Adams would probably agree with Dickerson–part of his cohort’s campaign against Jackson was that the fiery formal general couldn’t spell and lacked the necessary political experience to be president. Adams likely couldn’t be elected today, and perhaps was the last person to be elected based on political merits, rather than his power of campaigning. James Traub, an Adams biographer, notes of Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828: “Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not elect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”

III: Post Presidency

Adams served a single term as president–becoming only the second man to be voted out after four years, after his father, John Adams. But Adams refused to be cast into political obscurity. As part of his upbringing in Massachusetts, his parents had always encouraged him to find ways to be useful. “Usefulness” is also a reason James Comey invoked to justify writing his book after he was fired by Donald Trump.

When the opportunity rose for Adams to join the House of Representatives, he took it. Although many of his friends and family feared it would be degrading for an ex-president to join a lower chamber, Adams refuted this logic, saying it wouldn’t be at all degrading to serve “as a selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the people.” He joined the House in 1830 and would serve until his death in 1848–Adams literally collapsed on the House floor and died in the Speaker’s office.

As a member of the House, Adams took on slavery as his cause. Although he never labelled himself an abolitionist–at the time, abolitionists were hated by both the North and South as dangerous rabble rousers–Adams became a thorn in the side of the “slavocracy.” He insisted on introducing petitions to the House which raised questions about slavery–and continued to do so even after the passage of the gag rule, which forbid any such thing on the House floor. A rival Congressman once tried to bait Adams, reading back a line that he’d spoken to a group of black citizens: “The day of your redemption is bound to come. It may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or blood let it come.” The Congressman read the line twice. He reminded his colleagues what this meant–emancipation and maybe civil war. Adams replied:

“I say now let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men let it come. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Although the political climate was not at all amenable to this sort of thought–indeed, at the time such a statement was shocking, and Adams received his fair share of death threats–Adams never cowered from a controversial political issue that he thought was right, or wrong. He challenged the slavocracy as a Congressman and as a lawyer, when he defended the men and women of the Amistad and won their freedom. 

In today’s increasingly partisan climate, where politicians are falling over themselves to move further to the left or right in order to move up the ladder, a politician like Adams, who sticks to his principles even under immense political pressure, would be a welcome change.

George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the National Rifle Association

By Kaleena Fraga

The teenager survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the streets to protest lax gun laws–laws endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which they say allowed their ex-classmate to legally and easily purchase a gun and murder 17 of their peers.

Although sixty-six percent of Americans have expressed support for stronger gun control, the rhetoric between the two sides is hotter than ever. Many conservatives have doubled down in their support of the N.R.A., going after the student survivors of the Parkland shooting as “crisis actors” or mocking them on Twitter.

george-h-w-bush-swearing-in-1So it’s worth noting that one prominent conservative, George H.W. Bush, walked away from the N.R.A. in 1995 when he found that their messaging had grown too fiery in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s the kind of quiet courage that defined much of his time in public life–and an action that would be met with scorn by many on the right today.

The N.R.A had been on the offensive since 1993, when federal agents stormed a compound belonging to a cult called the Branch Davidians. The siege left dead on both sides. In its aftermath, as the Washington Post noted, “the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound only proved what [many N.R.A members] have been saying for years — that the Treasury Department agency is recklessly out of control, smashing into private homes to trample basic civil rights.”

In between the siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (in the same role he holds today), wrote a “special report” in the magazine American Rifleman. Among other things, it alleged that LaPierre had received a “secret” document, which warned that “the full scale war to crush [Americans’] gun rights has not only begun, but is well underway.”

A week before the bombing in Oklahoma City, LaPierre also signed a fund-raising letter that warned that President Clinton’s ban on assault weapons would result in “jackbooted Government thugs [with] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” The N.R.A. in 1995 endorsed the idea that the government was coming for Americans’ guns and their freedom. They pointed to Waco as the prime example.

Six days later, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh had been an NRA member for four years. He embraced many of the same positions as the NRA—he was a gun owner and believed that the government wanted to take his guns away. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, many of them federal employees. The N.R.A. found itself under increased scrutiny—it had pushed the idea that government could be the enemy of the people, and someone had taken this rhetoric and acted upon it.

Yet even after the bombing, LaPierre refused to soften his language.  When asked if, Wayne LaPierrein light of the tragedy, he’d like to take back what he’d said, LaPierre replied, “That’s like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage rather than the hurricane.”

To George H.W. Bush the rhetoric and the refusal by the N.R.A to repudiate LaPierre had crossed a line.

He wrote a letter to Thomas L. Washington, the president of the N.R.A. resigning his membership. The letter, in part, stated that Bush felt:

“outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre…defended his attack on federal agents as ‘jack-booted thugs.’ To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people.”

Bush went on to name several Secret Service agents and A.T.F. members whom he knew, and whom he endorsed as honorable people. One man, a Secret Service agent named Al Whicher who had served on Bush’s security detail, had been killed in Oklahoma City. The men that Bush listed, he wrote to Washington, “were no Nazis.” The officers he had known, Bush went on, “would [never] give the government’s ‘go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.’ (Your words).”

Bush acknowledged that he was a gun owner and an avid hunter. He agreed with the N.R.A’s objectives and believed in the importance of its education and training.

“However,” he wrote,  “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”

In light of this, Bush wrote, he would resign from the N.R.A., effective immediately.

In between 1995 and 2018, the N.R.A.’s rhetoric hasn’t changed. If anything, it has become angrier, more reactionary. At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) LaPierre warned that the “left -wing socialist brigade” sought to destroy “Western civilization.” At CPAC 2018, a few weeks after the Parkland shooting, LaPierre stated that the goals of the country’s “elite” was to “eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.” Gun control advocates, he said, “don’t care about our children. They want to make us all less free.”

Although Bush had been out of office for two years at the time of his resignation, he showed political courage that seems to be lacking in Washington today. Two days after the Parkland shooting President Donald Trump tweeted that “[La Pierre]…and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country trump gun controland will do the right thing.” Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush to be a member of the N.R.A.

Yet for a few days after the shooting it seemed that the survivors of Parkland and other advocates of gun control might find a surprising ally in the president. During a televised meeting Trump stated that while he “loved the N.R.A.” action was needed. He also appeared to endorse the idea that guns should be taken from anyone who seemed to be threatening violence. “Take the guns first,” Trump said. “Go through due process second.”

But any hope at a bipartisan solution–or for the president to show any political bravery in the face of the N.R.A.–was short lived. Soon after a visit in the Oval Office between the president and N.R.A. representatives Trump reversed course, endorsing N.R.A ideas like arming teachers, and tweeting that gun control did not have “much political support (to put it mildly).”

To change the America’s gun laws, then, the nation looks not toward the White House or any political or moral leaders, but rather to a growing group of young students who are determined to end gun violence once and for all.

First Lady Feature: Abigail Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

While John Adams convened at the First Congress, Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter reminding him to:

“Remember the ladies…remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

In his reply, John Adams was light-hearted, telling his wife:

“Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems…in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Her early (early) wave feminism continued. Later in life, Abigail sent a note along with a abigail-adams-9175670-1-402book she’d purchased for her niece, which she’d discovered portrayed women as unequal to men. The note was a warning to read the book with a grain of salt. Abigail wrote: “I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light.”

Abigail Adams had no formal education, but benefited from the libraries of her father and grandfather, of which she had free reign as a girl. She took a special interest in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, the classics, history, government, and French. Her wit and intelligence is preserved in the letters she wrote in her lifetime–to her husband, to friends, and to political frenemies like Thomas Jefferson.

She advocated for equal education for boys and girls, believed in emancipation for American slaves, and, above all, in the cause of independence. Although they spent many years apart (once, while John Adams lived in Europe, they spent a consecutive five years without seeing each other), Abigail and John Adams remained close throughout their marriage. Abigail Adams was a political partner as well. During her husband’s presidency, some even darkly referred to her as Mrs. President.

aaAbigail Adams was the first First Lady to live in the White House. She and John Adams moved to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia once the mansion was finished. As she wrote a friend, the executive mansion was huge and sparse. “It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” Abigail used today’s East Room to dry the family’s laundry.

When she died, Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams (who would go on to be president himself) wrote in his diary, “My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She [had no] feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle.”

Despite her forward-thinking views, and despite Abigail Adams’ relationship with men in power like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, she would not see equality between men and women in her lifetime. Women would not have the right to vote for another 143 years from the time she asked her husband to “remember the ladies.”

First Lady Feature: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

First Lady Feature: Nellie Herron Taft

By Kaleena Fraga

If William Howard Taft’s hold on the collective American memory is that he got stuck in a White House bathtub (likely false), his wife Nellie’s grip is weaker still. Yet Nellie played a crucial role in propelling her husband to the White House, and her subsequent stroke during his term in office irrevocably changed his presidency for the worse.

Née Helen Louise Herron, Nellie grew up immersed in American politics. Her father was a college friend of future president Benjamin Harrison, and shared an office with another future president, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes and Nellie’s father were especially close. When she was sixteen, Nellie was invited to accompany her parents to the Hayes White House for the president and his wife’s silver anniversary. Later in life, Nellie told journalists that, “Nothing in my life reaches the climax of human bliss, which I felt as a girl of sixteen, when I was entertained at the White House.”

Indeed, she told President Hayes that the visit had convinced her that she would marry “a man who will be president.” Hayes is reported to have responded, “I hope you may, and be sure you marry an Ohio man.” Hayes, Harrison, and the Herrons were all proud Ohioans (as was Nellie’s future husband).

nellie taftNellie herself was bright–she had a gift for languages, and studied French, German, Latin and Greek. She wrote in her diary that, “A book has more fascination for me than anything else.” Nellie wanted to continue her education–her brothers went to Yale and Harvard–but her father told her he could not afford to send her to college. Anyway, she was expected to find herself a husband, instead.

But this sort of lifestyle didn’t suit Nellie at all. Out of school, unable to take as many music lessons as she wanted because her father didn’t think they were worth the money, Nellie found herself “blue as indigo.” She wrote in her journal that, “I am sick and tired of my life. I am only nineteen. I feel as I were fifty.” The solution, she thought, was to find a job. “I read a good deal to be sure…but I should have some occupation that would require active work moving around–and I don’t know where to find it…I do so want to be independent.”

One has to wonder what Nellie could have accomplished if her father had coughed up the money for her to pursue her own education–although in the 1880s, neither Harvard nor Yale admitted female students.

In the end, Nellie enrolled in less expensive classes at the University of Cincinnati, where she studied Chemistry and German.

Although it horrified her mother, Nellie eventually decided to take a job teaching at a private school for boys. Nellie’s mother wrote her a letter detailing her alarm at this decision:  “Do you realize you will have to give up society, as you now enjoy it…it is quite the thing for a young girl in your position to teach in a boys school–and where there are no other ladies?” Nellie’s friends too questioned her “queer taste.” To this, Nellie wrote in her journal:

“Of course a woman is happier who marries, if she marries exactly right, but how many do? Otherwise I do think that she is much happier single, and doing some congenial work.”

At this point in her life, Nellie began to spend more time with William Howard Taft, a young lawyer whom she had had known as a girl and who had “[struck her] with awe.” Taft, for his part, started carrying books when he was around Nellie to gain her favor.

The first time he asked her to marry him, Nellie turned him down. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nellie feared that marriage would “destroy her hard-won chance to accomplish something worthy in her own right.” Taft persisted. Perhaps he sensed that Nellie had ambitions beyond that of a wife and mother. Writing to try and convince her to change her mind, Taft said, “Oh how I will work and strive to be better and do better, how I will labor for our joint advancement if only you will let me.”

Nellie agreed and they were married in 1886.

When Taft became president in 1909, Nellie’s greatest dream had been realized. She had encouraged her husband to turn down President Roosevelt’s offers of a seat on the Supreme Court to keep his options open for the presidency (Roosevelt asked three times). Her great ambition of returning to the White House had become a reality. Although her husband admitted he felt “like a fish out of water” (indeed, Taft would later state that he hardly remembered his term in office–his true ambition, which he attained after his presidency, was to be the Supreme Court Justice), Nellie was right at home.

The New York Times noted that few had been so “well equipped” to be First Lady. Nellie had been a governor general’s wife during Taft’s tenure in the Philippines. She was social; she understood the ceremonies of the office; and she spoke Spanish, French and German, so she could hold conversations with diplomats from around the world. The new First Lady received accolades for her conversational skills, and her ability to converse on a variety of topics. She was quite a contrast to her predecessor, Edith Roosevelt, who believed, “a woman’s name should appear in print but twice–when she is married and when she is buried.”

As Taft began to take on the demands of the office, Nellie took on responsibilities of her own. She became an honorary chair of the Women’s Welfare Department of the National Civic Federation to advocate for workers in government and industry. Nellie refused the commonly accepted logic that college wasn’t for women, and publicly said so. Her own daughter eventually attended Bryn Mawr. When asked about women’s suffrage, Nellie stated:

“A woman’s voice is the voice of wisdom and I can see nothing unwomanly in her casting the ballot.”

cherry treesAlthough some muttered that Nellie should focus more on “the simple duties of First Lady,” Nellie was equally eager to expand this role. Upsetting many New Yorkers, Nellie stated that she wanted to make Washington D.C. a social hub for Americans. Nellie set out to beautify the city. From her time abroad, Nellie had fallen in love with Japanese cherry trees and brought one hundred to Washington. When the mayor of Tokyo heard of this project, he sent 2,000 more.

“In the ten weeks of her husband’s Administration,” wrote the New York Times, “Mrs. Taft has done more for society than any former mistress of the White House has undertaken in many months.”

It was only a few weeks into Taft’s term that tragedy struck. Nellie, only 48, suffered a debilitating stroke. The right side of her face was paralyzed. Although the public was kept in the dark, Nellie had lost the ability to speak or express her thoughts in any way. She went to the family’s summer home in Massachusetts to recover. Taft needed his wife–needed her social drive and partnership. Weeks into his presidency, he had lost her.

Although Nellie recovered much of her facilities, she wasn’t able to play the part she so taft silverdreamed of in Taft’s administration. It certainly wanted for her influence. Without her, Taft was not able to play the dynamic social role he needed to fill the shoes of his bombastic predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Still, despite a second stroke in 1911, Nellie and Taft were able to celebrate their silver anniversary at the White House–the same event that Nellie had attended as a girl. One can only wonder what someone like Nellie could have accomplished if she’d had access to education; and if she’d lived in a world where women could pursue a career without judgement. Perhaps we’d be writing about her presidency, instead.

Special thanks to our girl Doris Kearns Goodwin & her wonderful Taft/Roosevelt biography: Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt & The Golden Age of Journalism.