The President and the Radio: FDR’s First Fireside Chat

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the first of his famous fireside chats.

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

It had never been done before. Or, it had, but not like this. On March 12, 1933, sixty million Americans listened to Roosevelt’s first radio address. Thus began a tradition that continued throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. The “fireside chats,” as journalist Robert Trout coined them, became a cornerstone of American life, as the country struggled with the Great Depression and toppled towards war.

Roosevelt wasn’t the first president to use radio to communicate with the country. Calvin Coolidge had given the first ever White House radio address, when he eulogized Warren G. Harding. Herbert Hoover had also used radio, both as a campaign tool and to give radio addresses, but he came across as much more formal than Roosevelt.

For example, during a radio address that Hoover gave on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1931, a little over a year since the markets had crashed, Hoover started like this:

“The Federal Government has assumed many new responsibilities since Lincoln’s time, and will probably assume more in the future when the States and local communities cannot alone cure abuse or bear the entire cost of national programs, but there is an essential principle that should be maintained in these matter.”

By contrast, Roosevelt’s first fireside chat started like this:

“My friends, 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.”

After Roosevelt’s address, letters poured into the White House in support of the president.

Virginia Miller wrote: “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your splendid explanation of the Bank situation on last evening’s broadcast.”

Viola Hazelberger wrote: “I have regained faith in the banks due to your earnest beliefs.”

And James A. Green said: “You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear. It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”

Suddenly the president seemed accessible. Whereas Herbert Hoover had averaged about 5,000 letters a week, the number of people writing to Roosevelt leapt to 50,000.

It’s no wonder, then, that Trout announced to Americans: “the president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat.” The title stuck. It did feel, to many people, as if the president was sitting in their parlor.

Roosevelt came at the right time. The radio age had just begun, and it only grew during his twelve years in office. About forty percent of Americans had a radio at the beginning of FDR’s term—five years in, almost ninety percent of Americans had a radio.

Certainly it was one thing to have a radio and a large audience, but quite another to speak with the eloquence and clarity that FDR used while speaking to the country (just ask Herbert Hoover). Roosevelt succeeded in reaching a great number of Americans, and giving a boost to their confidence.

Other presidents have similarly used new technologies to communicate with a mass audience. An obvious example is President Trump’s use of Twitter. President Obama used Facebook, and even appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to promote his health care legislation. President Kennedy, too, used the new power of television to reach more Americans. Kennedy gave the first live televised press conference.

Eight-six years ago in 1933, Roosevelt ended his address like this:

“After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

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? 

Garfield, Guiteau & the Unrealized Presidency

By Molly Bloom

“This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever; not even for a day.” James A. Garfield reportedly spoke these words on the night before his inauguration as President of the United States in 1881. In a field of ambitious career politicians and war heroes, including former president Ulysses S. Grant, Garfield inexplicably received the Republican nomination without participating in a campaign or even desiring to run in the first place.

Garfield’s upbringing was practically the inspiration for a Horatio Alger novel. (In fact, Alger wrote a “biography” of Garfield, From Canal Boy to President, which was more similar to Alger’s fictionalized narratives than factual). Garfield was born in a log cabin and grew up on a small farm in Ohio. His father had died before Garfield turned two; as a result, his family was so impoverished that he did not own a pair of shoes until he was four years old. Garfield was raised by his widowed mother and older siblings before leaving to work on the Erie Canal when he was 16, but he always sought to better himself through education. He worked as a teacher before and after attending Williams College and graduated salutatorian. He went on to pass the bar in Ohio, became a colonel in the Union Army, and served in Congress as a Republican at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln.

After seventeen years as a congressman, Garfield was seen as a political leader in the Republican Party, and yet he continually turned down requests to run for a higher office. During the Republican nomination of 1880, Garfield was in attendance to deliver the speech announcing the nomination of fellow Ohioan John Sherman. After 35 ballots in which no candidate reached the necessary 379 votes for the nomination, the 36th vote led to Garfield’s surprise nomination as the Republican candidate, eventually leading to his election as president.

james garfield memorial
Garfield memorial in Cleveland, OH

It is generally believed that Garfield would have been an excellent and progressive president, had he been given the chance. As a supporter of civil rights, he was endorsed by Frederick Douglass and secured votes from many freed slaves. Education, free trade, and civil liberties were all causes that Garfield believed were important for the progress of the nation following the Civil War. Yet, his presidency was cut short by an assassination attempt by Charles Guiteau and the poor medical treatment that he received in the aftermath. No one can say for sure if Garfield would have secured his place as one of the most effective US presidents- he was shot approximately four months into his term.

Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau may have seen much of himself in the presient. Both born into poverty in the Midwest, the two men were drawn to Christianity and education as a means to learn more about the world around them and advance their lives. While Garfield’s education drove him to serve in the Union Army and enter the House of Representatives, Guiteau joined a cult. He moved to the Oneida Community in upstate New York to follow the religious tenets of the community’s leader, John Humphrey Noyes.

The Oneida Community was a utopian commune founded, as most cults are, by an egotistical and religiously fanatic leader. Noyes believed that he was a flawless human who was granted by God the mission of helping others reach similar perfection. One concern in the commune was humans’ tendency toward monogamy; therefore, cult members practiced free love and sex to ensure that they stay away from monogamous relationships and avoid connecting too strongly to one person.

Despite Guiteau’s initial interest in the cult, he never quite fit into the community. Other members saw him as strange and egotistical. Guiteau felt that he, not Noyes, was the person to whom God spoke and believed that the commune members should be indebted to him and his power. Guiteau eventually left the cult, as he felt that he was unable to carry out the mission that God had set forth for him.

charles guiteau
Charles Guiteau

After leaving the Oneida Community, Guiteau continued from one profession to another, attempting to feed his delusions of grandeur and receive recognition. Even his family believed that he was mentally ill and tried to have him committed to an asylum; however, Guiteau eventually turned his interest to politics. He wrote a speech “Grant vs. Hancock” for the anticipated campaign in 1880, but once Garfield emerged as the Republican nominee, Guiteau made a few small adjustments so that the speech would fit Garfield, instead. Guiteau was given the chance to deliver the speech to an audience in New York, but he was only able to speak for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and leaving the scene. Continuing his pattern of misplaced self-importance, he felt that his speech was a major factor in Garfield’s election and that there should be a proportionate reward. After being rejected by various government staff, he decided to shoot Garfield in a manic state where he believed God willed the outcome and that a fellow member of the Stalwart faction of Republicans, Vice President Chester Arthur, ought to become president.

On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield twice, once grazing his arm and once in his back, at the Baltimore and Potomac railway station in Washington D.C. The New York Times reported that Guiteau stated, “I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”

After carrying Garfield on a mattress into a private room, doctors began to search for the bullet, which was the standard medical practice at the time. Many doctors used unhygienic tools and fingers to reach into the gunshot wound and attempted to locate and remove the bullet. Furthermore, when the president was bandaged, the dressings were not sterile. This lack of care was fatal to Garfield.

The most tragic part of the story is that Garfield could have recovered from his injuries had doctors been more careful and thoughtful in the aftermath of the gunshot wound. As Candice Millard writes in Destiny of the Republic, “Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital. Even had Garfield been simply left alone, he almost certainly would have survived” (178). The poor medical care and resulting infections led to his death, and Guiteau even claimed in his trial that medical malpractice, not the gunshots, killed the president. Despite this defense, Guiteau was found guilty and hanged in 1882.

Garfield died 137 years ago on September 19th, 1881. The presidency of a man who never had ambitions to hold the office was cut short and left his term in relative obscurity. Garfield is often remembered for his assassination (the second in sixteen years), but his humble background and the unlikely Republican nomination are extraordinary details that would have certainly been remembered had his presidency lasted longer. What he would have done as president is hard to say, but Garfield was living proof that a president can be for the people and by the people without the egotism and ambition that plague many politicians.

Sources:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye

Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

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

milly fillmore
Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Madison: Last Words and Lessons Learned

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big mistake.

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

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

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