William Howard Taft & the Supreme Court

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president. He was driven to the White House on the crest of his wife’s ambitions–she had wanted to be First Lady since childhood. Taft’s enduring goal was to join the Supreme Court.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

Taft had harbored this ambition since he became a superior court judge in his late twenties. Several times he got close–President McKinley promised him an appointment if Taft would accept his order to serve as Governor General of the Philippines. And President Roosevelt had similarly (twice) offered an appointment. But Taft found himself consistently answering to other callings outside of the Supreme Court–he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines and his wife, Nellie, convinced him pursue the presidency instead.

Taft didn’t especially enjoy being president–he once remarked that he hardly remembered his one term in office–and the end of his presidency was clouded by his former friend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to throw his hat in the ring, effectively denying either of them a chance of reelection. But Taft did leave his mark on American jurisprudence–as president, he had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Supreme Court.

taft sworn inOn October 3rd, 1921, Taft finally realized his ultimate goal and was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

As Chief Justice, Taft would oversee a court that expanded federal power, leaned conservative, and approved of Prohibition.

Many of Taft’s decisions–including a controversial ruling that allowed warrantless wiretaps of telephone conversations to be used against defendants in court–were overturned once he retired from the bench. Antonin Scalia noted that Taft, “had a quite accurate ‘vision of things to come,’ did not like them, and did his best, with consummate skill but ultimate lack of success, to alter the outcome.”

Perhaps Taft’s greatest legacy on the Supreme Court was to increase its power and prestige. Taft convinced Congress to pass the Judges’ Bill of 1925, which gave the Supreme Court more control over the cases in its docket and took away the automatic right of appeal. Taft often pushed for unanimity among his fellow justices, believing that such a statement would increase the court’s authority.

Taft’s wife, Nellie, left a tangible mark on Washington D.C. As First Lady, she set about theSCOTUS beautify the city, and ordered 2,000 cherry trees from Japan as part of this effort. Taft too forever changed the landscape of the capitol. He lobbied Congress to put aside funds for a new Supreme Court building–the one we know today–moving the justices out of the old Senate Chamber and into a building of their own. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Of his presidency, Taft once remarked “I don’t remember that I ever was president.” He served nine years on the bench as opposed to four years as president, presiding over 250 decisions. Taft only left the Supreme Court once his health required that he do so.

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

By Kaleena Fraga

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. 

 

“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.”

Theodore Roosevelt & the American Museum of Natural History

By Kaleena Fraga

Any visit to New York City is lacking without a stop at the American Museum of Natural History–an experience that can be described a mix between walking through a zoo and stepping back in time. The museum is deeply linked to Theodore Roosevelt, and his love of nature and conservation.

TR journal1
Roosevelt’s journal as an 11 year old

The roots of the museum are as old as 1867, when a young Roosevelt started the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” in his bedroom. A sickly child, often confined indoors, Roosevelt found joy in adventure novels and in animals. When he was given a seal skull by a family friend, it quickly became one of his prized possessions–and the first exhibit at the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. Reflecting on the skull Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that, “My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help develop me.” Even once he’d become a young man, Roosevelt’s passion continued. As a student at Harvard, he studied natural history.

The museum was chartered in 1869, and Roosevelt donated his own prized specimens to the museum’s young collection.

Upon leaving office, Roosevelt could boast of an impressive record of conservation that merits the museum’s fawning memorial of him–he had created 51 bird reservations, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks and 4 game preserves, and had enlarged or created 150 national forests. He also established the United States Forest Service and protected over 200 million acres of land for conservation.

Of course, Roosevelt was also a hunter. When he went on a safari after leaving office, the Smithsonian partially funded his trip knowing that he would shoot and bring animals home to be displayed–many of these are now in the Mammals Hall in the Museum of Natural History. His legacy of conservation and his legacy as a hunter leave us with a compelling, yet complicated, legacy.

In trying to describe his view of nature, Roosevelt once said:

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”

For city-dwellers of Manhattan, and for visitors from afar, the American Museum of Natural History is the next best thing.

William McKinley & the Red Carnation

By Kaleena Fraga

William McKinley believed in luck. Specifically, he believed in luck derived from red carnations.

The nation’s 25th president had been given a red carnation by a friend and a political opponent as they ran against each other for the seat of Ohio’s 18th congressional district. McKinley’s opponent, L.L. Lamborn, was the first to grow carnations out West.

After he won the contest, McKinley became convinced of the carnation’s good luck. He wore it on his lapel, and, once elected president, he kept bouquets of red carnations on his desk in the Oval Office.

McKinley was known to give out carnations while he greeted supporters. On a hot day in September, he greeted supporters in Buffalo, New York, outside Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. His team was nervous about the exercise, and his personal secretary had tried to cancel the reception twice. As McKinley greeted a little girl, she asked if she could have the carnation from his lapel. Although he was not in the habit of unpinning the carnation, McKinley granted her wish. A few handshakes down the line, McKinley found himself face to face with Leon Czolgosz, who shot him in the abdomen.

McKinley died eight days later. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, became the youngest executive in history at the age of 42.

All in all, presidents don’t seem to be an overly superstitious group. Aside from FDR’s fear of the number thirteen, and Harry Truman’s belief in the power of horse shoes, there don’t seem to be many examples of presidents relying on charms as McKinley did with his carnations. And, given how his presidency turned out, perhaps that’s for the best.

Truman, Roosevelt, and the Day that Changed History

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. President since 1933, Roosevelt was only a few months into his fourth term in office.

He was spending some time in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping that the the temperate climate and hot springs could restore his health. Roosevelt had another reason to visit Warm Springs–he’d planned a rendezvous with his long time mistress, Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford. Rutherford had arranged for her friend, Elizabeth Schoumatoff, to paint a portrait of the president.

unfinished portraitSchoumatoff was standing at her easel painting the president when something in his demeanor changed. She later recalled: “He looked at me, his forehead furrowed in pain, and tried to smile. He put his left hand up to the back of his head and said, ‘I have a terrible pain in the back of my head.’ And then he collapsed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt died a few hours later. He was 63.

In Washington D.C., Vice President Harry Truman arrived at the White House, where he was greeted by the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. She told him that the president had died. Truman, stunned, was silent. Then he asked if there was anything he could do for her.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eleanor replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

For many people, Roosevelt had been the only president they had ever known. He died as WWII had begun to come to an end. In David McCullough’s Truman, McCullough writes that the similarities of Lincoln and FDR’s death were not unappreciated–both had died in April, both died as the wars they’d fought ended, and both would be remembered as great men. “But implicit,” McCullough writes, “was also the thought that Lincoln, too, had been succeeded by a lackluster, so-called ‘common man,’ the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.”

Truman, for his part, told a crowd of reporters:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman’s premature ascension to the presidency prompts one of the what-ifs of presidential history. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, that guided the country through the last stages of WWII, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Today’s historians have to wonder what FDR might have done in his stead.

Still, Truman finished the three years of Roosevelt’s term and (narrowly) won reelection Harry Trumanin his own right. Although his approval rating hovered in the thirties at the end of his term, history later came to regard Truman as one of the nation’s best presidents. Per McCullough, his legacy includes “the creation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, NATO; for committing American forces in Korea and for upholding the principle of civilian control over the military.”

Truman certainly had big shoes to fill. When FDR died 73 years ago today, the New York Times eulogized him by writing:

“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…it was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill…Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”

 

Theodore Roosevelt and Valentine’s Day 1884

By Kaleena Fraga

On the day after Valentine’s Day, there’s plenty of presidential material to sort through. There are the longest presidential marriages (George and Barbara Bush are the winners here, with a logged 73 years of marital life), Richard Nixon’s surprisingly poetic love letters to his wife, Pat, and Harry Truman, who says that he first fell for his wife, Bess, when he was six years old.

Among the most poignant, and certainly the most tragic, is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Valentine’s Day in 1884. Just twenty-five, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day, to unrelated causes. Both died young–his wife, Alice, was only twenty-two, and had just given birth to their daughter. His mother was forty-nine. Roosevelt marked the day with a simple, wrenching entry in his diary. X The light has gone out of my life.

rooseveltdiary.jpg

It was unmistakably the lowest point of Roosevelt’s life. But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked in her Roosevelt biography Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt believed that “frantic activity was the only way to keep sorrow at bay.”

To anyone who has studied Roosevelt’s life, this philosophy is abundantly clear. For those who haven’t, Goodwin describes Roosevelt as someone who simply couldn’t stand still–ever. Journalist Louis Brownlow wrote how Roosevelt, as president, couldn’t stop even for his midday shave. (Journalists were invited to attend, so that Roosevelt could answer questions or give more detail on his ideas). “The President would wave both arms, jump up, speak excitedly, and then drop again into the chair and grin at the barber, who would begin all over.”

When the French ambassador Jules Jusserand visited Roosevelt, dressed for a formal occasion, he was whisked away to the woods with the exuberant president. Describing the event later, Jusserand recalled that they moved at a “breakneck pace” and that when they reached a river, rather than resting, Roosevelt declared that they had better strip “as to not wet our things in the creek.”

After his tragic Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, and have five more children. Roosevelt’s “frantic activity” would propel him to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. If anything, the story of his tragedy is a reminder that someone can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.