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. 

 

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.

The Executive and the Press: John Adams and the Alien & Sedition Acts

By Kaleena Fraga

The relationship between the executive branch and the press is often a tense one. The Obama administration received bipartisan criticism when it tried to crack down on leaks to reporters, and the Trump administration has recently subpoenaed New York Times reporter Ali Watkins in pursuit of the same goal.

Presidents back to Washington have struggled with how to deal the press. John Adams’ solution was the signing and enforcement the Alien and Sedition Acts, which forbid “False, scandalous, and malicious” writing against the government, Congress or president, or any attempt “to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition.”

Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, was initially met with what we might describe today as fawning coverage. He was universally beloved, and in the (brief) era before political parties, there was no concrete opposition to push back against his administration. This changed–quickly–with opposition forces coalescing around Thomas Jefferson. Partisan newspapers began to pop up around the country. Washington told Adams in 1796 that one reason he did not want to serve a third term in office was that he felt, “disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” In a letter to a friend, Washington similarly called press criticism “diabolical” and “outrages on common decency.” But Washington kept his criticisms private.

The Alien & Sedition Acts, passed under Adams, were meant to quell criticism of the administration. Washington privately expressed support for Adams’ actions. Although Adams said little publicly of the Acts, his wife Abigail wrote her friend that many newspapers were “criminal” and ought to be brought to court. “Yet daringly do the vile incendiaries keep up…the most wicked and base, violent and culminating abuse…nothing will have effect until Congress passes a Sedition bill.”

Adams’ vice president–and the de facto leader of the opposition party–Thomas Jefferson, quietly left the capitol to go home to Monticello. He and other Republicans feared the Acts could mean the end of their republic. “For my own part,” Jefferson wrote in a letter, “I consider these laws as merely an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution…if this goes down, we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress declaring that the President shall continue in office during life [and] reserving to another occasion the transfer of succession to his heirs…”

The Alien and Sedition Acts proved incredibly unpopular. They helped to elect Thomas Jefferson, and made John Adams a one term president.

As president, Jefferson also disliked the press. He wrote “our newspapers, for the most part, present only the caricatures of disaffected minds. Indeed, the abuses of freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never known or borne by any civilized nation.” Still, Jefferson possessed an undying faith in the common sense of the people. He acknowledged:

“The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them.”

All public figures faced a barrage of what Donald Trump might call fake news, although in many cases in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the news was actually fake. Adams was accused of sending Charles Coteworth Pinckney to London to procure four mistresses, two for each man. “I do declare upon my honor,” he wrote a friend, “if this is true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.” Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, faced rumors of a relationship with one of his slaves–rumors that were denied at the time but, of course, were later proven true.

Since the birth of the country, the American executive has struggled with how to handle the press–a struggle that continues to this day. But the importance of a free press is generally acknowledged by the executive branch. Seven years after he left the White House, Thomas Jefferson–who faced attacks, both true and false–stated: “Where the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe.”

 

 

Thanks to: 

John Adams by David McCullough

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Harry Truman Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

The United States’ 33rd president lived in an age before twitter. Unlike Donald Trump, Harry Truman didn’t have the easy access of the internet to hit back against alleged slights. He did, however, have the old fashioned method of strongly worded letters, which is exactly what he employed after a reviewer panned his daughter Margaret’s singing performance performance.

The reviewer, Paul Hume, wrote for the Washington Postthat Margaret Truman “could not sing very well” and was “flat a good deal of the time.”

In celebration of Truman’s 134th birthday, we’ve printed Truman’s fiery response in full:

“Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.”

Hume, hardly an old man at 34, kept the letter for a few years and eventually sold it.

While many Americans sympathized with the president as a father defending his daughter, many more were outraged that Truman had decided to focus his anger on Hume and not on the ongoing war in Korea. David McCullough notes in his tome about the president, Truman, that the Chicago Tribune at the time wondered if the letter indicated that Truman’s “mental competence and emotional stability” were cracking under pressure.

The original letter was eventually purchased by the Harlan Crow Library, in Highland Park, Texas. A copy of the letter, however, hung in the office of President Bill Clinton during his two terms in the White House.

Thomas Jefferson & Emmanuel Macron: Foreign Dignitaries, Then & Now

By Kaleena Fraga

On Tuesday night, the Trump White House welcomed Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife Brigitte to the Trump Administration’s first official State Dinner. The Macrons were greeted with all the pomp and circumstance that has come to be expected of state dinners. It’s quite a contrast to how some foreign dignitaries were treated during the early years of the country.

When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he was determined to represent himself as a republican in dress and manner–not like his political foes, the Federalists, whom he suspected were all aristocratic monarchists.

But Jefferson’s simple republican ways ran up against traditional procedure of greeting foreign guests. When the British Minister to the United States (this in a time where American presidents received envoys from foreign nations, rather then meet with other leaders face to face) Anthony Merry, presented himself for the first time at the White House he had quite a shock. Merry had dressed up for the occasion–wearing a blue dress coat with a gold braid, his white breeches and silk stockings, and a plumed hat, with his sword at his side. Accompanied by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, Merry was shocked to find that the president had not jeffersoncome to formally greet him–in fact, he was no where to be found. Madison and Merry more or less ran into Jefferson while wandering the halls of the White House looking for him. From there, Merry’s sense of insult deepened. Jefferson wore simple clothing–slippers, breeches, and woolen stockings.

Merry was shocked, and felt that Jefferson’s dress and appearance was not only an insult to him, but to the Crown. And it got worse. At dinner that night–where the Merrys assumed they would be guests of honor–Jefferson, a widower, took the arm of Dolley Madison, not Elizabeth Merry (despite Dolley’s insistence that he should “take Mrs. Merry” instead). Then, because Jefferson favored a “pell-mell” style of seating–that is, random seating, not by rank–the Merrys found themselves fighting for a seat. As Merry tried to take a seat next to the Spanish ambassador, an ambitious Congressman barreled ahead of him to take it for himself.

Utterly dismayed, the Merrys boycotted all future White House events.

According to Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this sat perfectly well with the nation’s third president. “We say to them, no,” Jefferson wrote, referring to those, like the Merrys, who preferred the time-honed tradition of formal dress and dinners, “the principle of society with us, as well as of our political constitution, is the equal rights of all: and if there be an occasion where this equality ought to prevail preeminently, it is in social circles collected for conviviality.”

Of course, Jefferson, a Francophile who distrusted the British, would probably be more thrilled to host the Macrons at the White House than he ever was to host the Merrys.

The Final Voyage: Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train

By Kaleena Fraga

Between April 21st and May 4th, 1865, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body journeyed from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where the president would be buried. It also carried his son, Willie, who had died at the White House in 1862 of typhoid fever.

istanto001p1
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

The train would travel 1600 miles and visit 180 cities across seven states. The journey was a mammoth effort coordinated by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In order to force the railroad companies to cooperate, Stanton declared all railroads as military domains. Although Mary Lincoln had pushed for the train to take the most efficient route possible, Stanton insisted that the train take a path that would allow the most people to see it. Mary Lincoln, however, had the last word for the president and her son’s final resting place–Oak Ridge Cemetery, outside of Springfield, Illinois (accepting and then rejecting a request to have the president buried in downtown Springfield, near a train line. Mary Lincoln wanted her husband to rest “in some quiet place.”)

The train, called The United States, had been built with the purpose of presidential travel, the same role that Air Force One plays for presidents today. It was built by the U.S. Military Railroad starting in 1863–this department imagined that once the Civil War ended Lincoln would need to travel great distances to meet with Americans and mend the country. Lincoln had an appointment to see the train for the first time on April 15th, 1865–the day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater.

The train itself was bought by Union Pacific before its completed its voyage to Springfield. It was made into a regular passenger train, and then purchased by a private citizen, Thomas Lowry. Lowry called the train “the most sacred relic in the United States.” He had planned to restore and permanently display the funeral car, but he died in 1909 of tuberculosis. In 1911, a fire destroyed the train.

The train’s scheduled stops were published in local newspapers, giving people plenty of notice for when they could come and pay their respects. Anyone in the country who loved Barbara Bush could have tuned into her funeral on April 21st, 2018, but in April 1865 mass media didn’t exist. Lincoln’s funeral train would allow seven million people across the country to share in the mourning of the president–about a third of the country’s population in 1865.

TR and Lincoln
TR can be seen looking out the second story window, on the left side of the photograph

At each scheduled stop, the coffin was taken off the train and placed in a public place so that the people could say goodbye. People waited for hours for this chance, some watching from windows or from the street as the funeral procession went by, and thousands more gathering into places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia to mourn Lincoln. A young Theodore Roosevelt was one such mourner–he and his brother Elliot watched the funeral procession from their grandfather’s Union Square mansion in New York City. Others stood along the track to watch the train as it went by–chugging along at 20 miles per hour, with a portrait of Lincoln at the front of the train.

After a long journey, the train stopped in Springfield, Illinois. Here the president and Willie were taken off the train and laid to rest. Ten thousand people followed the procession from the Springfield Capitol to the cemetery. Major Grenville Dodge later recalled that the procession was:

“the saddest sight of my life…the streets were lined with thousands and thousands of people, evidently in great distress and sorrow…There was hardly a person who was not in tears, and when I looked around my troops I saw many of them in tears.”

Mary Lincoln, still inconsolable over her husband’s death, had remained in Washington D.C. with her young son Tad. The Lincoln’s other son, twenty-two year old Robert Lincoln, represented the family at the funeral.

Only one other president’s body would be taken by train to its grave–Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who died in Warm Springs, Georgia, travelled 1100 miles from Georgia to Washington D.C. Five hundred thousand people gathered at Union Station to witness the body’s arrival back in Washington. The president was brought to the East Room of the White House, where he lay in state for about five hours. From there, Roosevelt went to his final resting place–Hyde Park, in New York state.