“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.

Impeachment from the Bench: Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Chase, and Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaleena Fraga

Even before the newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, placed his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution, Democrats in Congress faced pressure to remove him from the bench. A petition to impeach the judge quickly hit over 150,000 signatures and think pieces arguing for and against impeachment began to pop up across the Internet.

Faced with this, Democrats in Congress hesitated. “I have enough people on my back to impeach the president!” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, when asked if she would impeach Kavanaugh.

Hesitancy on their part is understandable: attempts to impeach justices from the Supreme Court have been few and far between, and have never resulted in an actual impeachment.

The first example of this came early in American history. Thomas Jefferson had swept to power in the “revolution of 1800”, a repudiation of the last twelve years of Federalist rule. Still, despite the ascension of Jefferson’s party to both houses of Congress, most of the Supreme Court remained staunchly Federalist.

One of Jefferson’s first moves as president was to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801–an act with a dry title and a dramatic history. Jefferson’s predecessor, his frenemy John Adams, had passed the Act in the waning weeks of his one-term in office. It reduced the size of the Supreme Court, and, more importantly, created a lower level of courts which Adams briskly filled with like-minded Federalists with life-terms. Jefferson and his allies accused Adams of packing the court with so-called “Midnight Judges“, giving birth to the lore that the ink on Adams’ appointments had not dried by the time Adams left Washington, skipping out on Jefferson’s inauguration.

When the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed (and replaced with the Judiciary Act of 1802, eliminating the circuit judgeships that Adams had created), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase–a Federalist with a “volcanic” personality–declared in front of a Baltimore jury that “Our republican Constitution will sink into a mobocracy–the worst of all possible governments.”

Jefferson already disliked the justices of the Supreme Court (his biographer Jon Meacham writes that Jefferson’s “hatred of his cousin John Marshall [the Chief Justice] was cordial, but it was hatred nonetheless”) and found that this outburst from Chase could not stand. He wrote to Congressman Joseph H. Nicholson asking: “Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution and on the proceedings of a State go unpunished; and to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures?”

Ever the behind-the-scenes man, Jefferson professed that it would be better “that I should not interfere.”

Jefferson’s cousin and friend, Congressman John Randolph, launched impeachment proceedings against Justice Chase. Chase argued he was being persecuted for his political convictions rather than any actual crimes. (Indeed, one of the articles of impeachment pointed to Chase’s political speech from the bench).

Chase escaped with an acquittal. His impeachment trial set two norms: that judges should not be removed based on their political beliefs, and that judges should remain non-partisan while speaking from the bench.

One hundred and sixty-five years later, a second Supreme Court justice, Abe Fortas, faced impeachment proceedings. Rather than face a trial, he resigned.

Between the dawn of the Republic and 2010, fourteen other federal judges (serving on lower courts) have faced charges of impeachment–eight were removed from office, three were acquitted, and three resigned. It’s no wonder that Democrats today hesitate to engage in impeachment rhetoric when it comes to Kavanaugh; given the history, it would be an extreme move on their part.

Still, for those who shudder at the partisanship plaguing the nation and the Supreme Court today, recall that amidst Jefferson’s time as president, he infuriated the Federalists by such actions as repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 and attempting to impeach Samuel Chase. One frustrated American wrote to the president he hoped “that your Excellency might be beheaded within one year.”

Thomas Jefferson, Time, and the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

michelle obama voteAddressing a rally in Las Vegas, former first lady Michelle Obama likened young people’s dismal voting records to her daughters letting their grandmother pick out their clothes or their playlists.

“Now, no offense to grandma,” said Obama. “When you don’t vote, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re letting other people make some really key decisions about the life you’re going to live.”

Michelle Obama would have an ally in Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, in a letter to his friend James Madison, professed his belief that each generation should play a role in determining their own destinies.

“The question,” Jefferson wrote Madison, in 1789, “whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.”

Jefferson was writing from Paris, less than a month before he would travel back to the newly formed United States to serve as George Washington’s secretary of state.

“I set out on this ground,” Jefferson wrote, “which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” After a lengthy piece describing how each generation should be free of the last generation’s debt, Jefferson mused:

“On similar grounds it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation…every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

Madison, having recently helped create a constitution which he hoped would last much longer than 19 years, refuted much of Jefferson’s claim, arguing that such a design would create anarchy.

Madison also belonged to the camp of Founders who believed  that judges should hold their positions as long as they exhibited “good-behavior,” a point which Jefferson routinely professed disagreement. In a letter written in 1822, Jefferson once mused to a friend, “Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years and renewable by the President and Senate.” Jefferson oversaw the only attempted impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, a George Washington appointee whom Jefferson believed was overtly partisan.

As Congress grows more partisan itself, unable to pass significant legislation without a fight, the Supreme Court, and its judges, have become more powerful. Certainly, the Court is not what the Founders envisioned–the first ten justices only served for ten years, whereas most justices since 1970 have spent upwards of twenty-five years on the court.

In 2005, 45 leading legal scholars agreed “in principle” to a plan that would limit supreme court justices’ terms to just 18 years. The proposal’s authors, Paul Carrington (a Democrat) and Roger Cramton (a Republican) note that: “the Founders could not foresee that increases in longevity would imperil the rotation in powerful office essential to representative government.” Their plan, a staggered eighteen year term for justices, would allow for an appointment every two years, or two per presidential term, thus resolving the randomness and the overblown significance of Supreme Court appointments.

Thomas Jefferson, in his belief that the Constitution should be reviewed every nineteen years, would have found this an interesting idea. But it’s a complex one, and would be a tough sell to Congress and the American people, especially as life-terms for justices are engrained in American political life.

In the meantime, for people who want to see change on the political stage, there’s only one thing to do: VOTE!

The Case of the Missing Monument: John Adams and Historical Memory

By Kaleena Fraga

The Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Washington D.C. is dotted with such landmarks testifying to the importance of America’s early presidents. But there is one founding father conspicuously absent from D.C.’s memorial scene–the nation’s second president, John Adams.

Even in life, Adams worried about his place in American history. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson written in 1815, after both of their presidencies had ended, Adams wrote:

“The essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”

George Washington, he predicted, and Benjamin Franklin, would be celebrated while he, John Adams, faded away into oblivion.

A few years later, the question of Adams’ place in American memory continued to gnaw at him. On top of being forgotten, Adams worried that he would be misremembered. He lamented,

“Mausoleums, Statues, Monuments will never be erected to me. I wish them not——Panegyrical Romances, will never be written, nor flattering Orations pronounced to transmit my Character to Posterity in glorious Colours. No nor in true Colours neither.”

Adams is perhaps overshadowed in American history by the presidents whose administrations bookended his one term in office–George Washington, as the nation’s first president, and Thomas Jefferson, who called his own election “the revolution of 1800.” Yet Adams played a crucial role in the nation’s founding, no less so than either Jefferson or Washington.

One of the only founding fathers who did not own slaves, Adams participated in the Continental Congress, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation’s first vice president, and as the nation’s second president. He was a determined advocate for the Declaration of Independence, passionately defending it while the quieter Jefferson preferred to listen and watch. Although his maneuvering to avoid war with France during his one-term in office made him unpopular–and his infamous Alien & Sedition Acts even more so–Adams once grumbled:

“I will defend my Missions to France as long as I have an Eye to direct my hand or a finger to hold my pen. They were the most disinterested And meritorious Actions of my Life. I reflect upon them with So much satisfaction that I desire No other Inscription on my Grave Stone than “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself the Responsibility of the Peace with France in the Year 1800.”

Recently, the House of Representatives took concrete steps to establish such an Adams memorial, after years of lobbying by the Adams’ family and their foundation, the Adams Memorial Foundation. Previous attempts to organize a memorial for Adams failed over indecision over the location, running into certain laws that prohibit construction on the Mall or Tidal Basin, the kind of places most of Adams’ proponents would like to see his likeness.

In July 2018 the House passed a bill that would “establish a commission to plan, fundraise and build a memorial to the country’s second president.” The bill’s sponsor, Stephen F. Lynch, who represents the district where Adams was born, Braintree, Massachusetts, believes that the entire Adams’ family deserves to be honored.

“John Adams’ legacy was instilled through his entire family,” Lynch said. “John’s wife Abigail is known as an advocate for women’s rights and his son, John Quincy Adams, later served as our nation’s sixth president.”

John Adams worried that he and his accomplishments would be forgotten. With the passage of the House bill, perhaps the second president will finally get the recognition that he deserves.

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

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to a version of this piece in podcast form, click here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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