Tag Archive | Presidential history

Book Review: Building the Great Society

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, by Joshua Zeitz

First of all, let me just say that I did not finish this book.  I tried.  Our library has been opened and closed over and over again due to COVID (and a bit of casual rioting but that’s a different story), and nobody else wanted to read this “masterpiece”, so I kept on trying through three standard checkout periods – nine weeks total…  I couldn’t.  So this review is based on pages 1 to 137, and a little bit of casual skimming beyond that page to see if the narrative would change (it did not).

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House

I wanted to learn more about President Johnson’s self-described War on Poverty, otherwise what became known as The Great Society.  I wanted to learn about this New Deal-esque plan to lift Americans out of poverty by the multi-pronged plan to address inequities in housing, employment, education and nutrition.  I also wanted to learn about the successes and failures of this sweeping legislation and how it has continued to shape politics and people’s lives today, even more than 50 years later.

I didn’t get any of that.  This book – at least the first 137 pages, focused on who Johnson allied with to pass his legislation, who he selected for his implementation team, and the political infighting that was rife, even at the staff level.  I learned which ill-equipped and un-remodeled buildings they were housed in, how they had to scramble to even get pens and phone lines, and how team members who should have had access to information were shut out and marginalized.

If this was interesting, it might have made up for the fact that a third of the way into the book, Zeitz still hadn’t given the reader more than headline scraps of the meat of the Great Society plan, but it wasn’t interesting.  In fact, it just frustrated me.  It reminded me that back then, and still today, politicians seem to have forgotten that we the people have elected them to work together, to find compromise, and to actually SOLVE problems.  Instead Johnson just sounds like a bastard.  And probably an alcoholic.

So if you are interested in learning more about the Great Society, maybe this book gets into it later on, but go ahead and skip the first third…  And if you know of any good books on the Great Society, please let me know.

1 star. 

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson

As a fan of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln, I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. It did not disappoint!

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

We are all familiar with the story of our 16th President’s untimely death due to an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.  However, do you know the story of the plan that lead up to it?  A plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  It is believed that General Ulysses S. Grant was also a target of the plot, as he was supposed to be attending Ford’s Theatre with the President that evening.

Of course, Lincoln was the only man killed, shot in the Presidential Box at the theatre about 10:15 pm by John Wilkes Booth, who with dramatic flair, jumped to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled.  Booth was well known, so he went into hiding as he attempted to cross the Potomac River and get deeper into Virginia, where Confederates still held territory.

Swanson book documents the plot, the conspirators, and Booth’s flight into Virginia after the assassination.  He uses primary sources to tell the story of where Booth went after he crossed the bridge outside of DC, and why it took twelve long days to pin him down in Garrett’s barn, where the final standoff occurred.  He also weaves in little known stories of the players involved, filling out these important chapters in American history.  Did you know that Laura Keene, the actress in the play that night, made her way into the box after Lincoln was shot, asked and was incredulously granted permission to cradle the dying President’s head in her lap?

For fans of Lincoln, this book fills in some of the gaps of his assassination and the days following, and is not to be missed.

5 stars.

Book Review: Grant

What an incredibly comprehensive Presidential biography!  Grant, by Ron Chernow, tips the scales at 1074 pages (I read the audiobook version), and details the entirety of Grant’s life.  Unlike Grant’s own memoirs, Chernow explores his marriage and family as well as his professional life.

Grant

Grant was a complex man.  He was born to a middle class stable family that was strongly religious and emotionally distant.  Grant excelled as an equestrian and ended up getting an appointment to West Point though his father’s connections.  He was a mediocre student, getting good grades in courses he liked and not doing well where he wasn’t interested.  He graduated in the middle of his class.

He married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer, after courting her for years while working to get his future father-in-law to accept him.  It was during that time that he served in the Mexican American War, and began to display his skill in combat operations.

Grant floundered for a while after marrying Julia.  His military career took him away from her for long periods, and he didn’t do well on his own.  He began drinking heavily, and there is some evidence that a drinking episode led to his resignation from the Army in the 1850s.  He puttered away unsuccessfully as a farmer, selling firewood, trying to get a civil appointment as an engineer, and finally went to work in his father’s tannery – which he absolutely despised.  It wasn’t until the Civil War began and he went back to the Army that he found his way.  And boy did he ever.

This is likely the part of the story that you know.  Grant rose though the ranks of the Western theater, capturing Fort Donelson and later implementing a successful siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Having caught the eye of President Lincoln, Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General of all Union Armies.  Rumors of drinking binges continued to haunt Grant from time to time, and multiple people sent stories to Lincoln, leading to one of Lincoln’s now famous quotes, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”  Ulysses S. Grant brought the war to a close, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Grant continued as commander of the Army after the war ended, leading the Army’s role in reconstruction in the South.  Reconstruction failed for many reasons, but Grant did everything he could to advance peace and the rights of the former slaves.  He believe more than most at the time that blacks deserved equal rights and the opportunity to vote in the post-war era.

Riding on the coattails of his wartime fame, Grant was elected to two terms as President.  Most believe that his Presidency was mediocre; he ended up being caught in a number of political scandals as a result of his trust in his friends who were participating in a variety of nefarious activities.

Chernow documents Grant’s life thoroughly and he tries to speak of Grant’s strengths and failings in equal measures. He is clearly biased towards Grant though, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think of Grant as an innocent soul who was duped by dishonest friends and political appointments rather than being complicit in their activities.  We will probably never know how much Grant knew.

The only real annoyance for me was Chernow’s obsessive focus on Grant’s drinking.  By all accounts, Grant had largely gained control of his alcohol problem by the time he went back to the Army, and no one ever alleged that Grant’s drinking got in the way of his ability to command his Army.  Yet Chernow seemingly explores every single allegation, acknowledging that they all sounded similar before dismissing most of them.  Whether Grant fell off the wagon or not seems largely irrelevant in the context of his later career and life.

Chernow clearly did extensive research on Grant, reading his letters, military orders and Presidential papers, in addition to researching many of Grant’s contemporaries and what they had to say about him.  He quotes President Lincoln, General Lee, General Sherman, General James Longstreet and many others to round out his descriptions of this great man.

Spoiler alert – as with most biographies, Grant dies at the end…  I cried.  Well done and worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: The First Conspiracy

I recently read The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, by Brad Meltzer.  I’ve only recently started reading more about the Founding Fathers, and learning more about the Revolutionary War.  Did you know that in 1776 there was a plot to assassinate George Washington?

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

Records are incomplete, both because of the fact that this occurred almost 250 years ago, as well as what was likely a desire to keep it quiet at the time, so as not to undermine public confidence in the Revolutionary cause.  What would happen if people found out that the Revolution’s greatest general was under threat from his own men?

The book explores the plot, the players and the investigation of the conspiracy to kill Washington, but also has a lot of great information on the climate in the United States in the early years of the revolution.  Meltzer writes about the reasons men joined the cause, and the reasons people stayed loyal to England.  It wasn’t so easy to decide where your allegiances should fall, especially considering the economic impacts of your choice.  All of that played into this plot.

The book weaves the story into an interesting narrative, culminating in the capture of those responsible and their ultimate punishment.

4 stars. 

Circus Trip 2018: McKinley Memorial

Day 37, Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Canton, Ohio

I heard somewhere that this is the largest Presidential tomb in the United States.  I tried to corroborate this with information online, but I came up empty, but having seen it, it seems plausible.  That said, I wasn’t really expecting that, since President William McKinley isn’t exactly the most famous or revered of our Presidents.

The memorial

McKinley lived in Canton, Ohio for the majority of his adult life. He served in the Civil War and participated in several battles an officer in a regiment of the Ohio volunteers; he was the last Civil War veteran president. After the war, he became a lawyer and had a robust civil and political career before being elected President in 1896.

On September 6, 1901, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later after developing gangrene. His body was returned to Washington, D.C. to lie in state at the United States Capitol, and then he came home to be interred in Canton.

McKinley’s friends planned a memorial for McKinley and raised over $600,000 to build it in Canton’s Westlawn Cemetery.  Construction started in 1905 and was completed in 1907, the same year that Ida McKinley died.  McKinley, Ida, and their two daughters who died in early childhood were all interred in the memorial building.

And what a memorial it is!  It stands on a grass-covered hill overlooking the city of Canton, and is immense!  It was designed by architect H. Van Buren Magonigle (that’s a name you really have to grow into!) and is a huge domed pink granite building that is 96 feet tall and 79 feet in diameter. To get to the building, you must first climb up 108 stone steps that lead up to the mausoleum.  When I visited, there were quite a few joggers getting their workout in on these imposing steps.  There used to be a long reflecting pool in front of the memorial and steps, but it was replaced in  1951 by a depressed lawn.  About halfway up the steps is a bronze statue of President McKinley delivering his last speech in Buffalo, by artist Charles Henry Niehaus.

You can go inside the mausoleum and see the tomb where the McKinley family is interred, but it was already closed for the day when I visited.  It would have been neat to see!  Instead I took pictures outside, where my hair really shows how windy it was at the top of the hill that day!  The memorial is managed by the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum – one day I’ll visit there too!

 

Circus Trip 2018: William Howard Taft NHS

Day 34, Saturday, August 18, 2018

Cincinnati, Ohio

On my way through Cincinnati I stopped at the William H. Taft National Historic Site.

Taft was the 27th President of the United States, as well as the 10th Chief Justice of the United States.  He was born in 1857, and lived at his family home in Cincinnati, Ohio until he went to Yale University in 1874.  Even before he was President, he achieved many notable accomplishments!  Taft rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a judge while he was still in his twenties and then he was appointed as a judge of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  He also served as the civilian governor of Philippines, from 1901 to December 1903.

William Howard Taft (from Wikipedia)

Roosevelt spoke with Taft about appointing him to the Supreme Court in 1902, but Taft didn’t feel like his work in the Philippines was finished, and he also still had a desire to run for the Presidency.  One of Roosevelt’s goals that year was to eliminate Taft as a potential rival to the Presidency, as Roosevelt wanted to run himself.  Taft did accept the role of Secretary of War in 1904, and added Presidential Cabinet member to his list of accomplishments.

In 1908 he was elected President against William Jennings Bryan with Theodore Roosevelt’s assistance.  Taft and Roosevelt’s relationship deteriorated due to political disagreements during Taft’s Presidency and ultimately Roosevelt decided to run for President as a third-party candidate and split the vote, resulting in Woodrow Wilson’s win in 1912.

Several years after Taft left the Presidency, he did finally realize his dream of becoming the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921, and served until his death in 1930.  He was the only person in our nation’s history to serve both as President and as Chief Justice!

The National Historic Site is located in Taft’s birthplace and childhood home in Cincinnati.  The home was built in the Greek Revival style and is believed to have been built in 1842 in the Mount Auburn neighborhood of the city.  At the time, Mount Auburn was a popular place for wealthy residents of Cincinnati, where they could escape the heat and humidity of the inner area of the city.  Taft’s parents lived in the home until 1889, when they moved to California to benefit from the better climate.  The home was leased for ten years, then finally sold to a local judge in 1899.

The exterior of the Taft family home

The home went through the usual decline in the time period after it was sold out of the Taft family.  Outbuildings were destroyed, the home was divided into apartments, and by the time it was acquired by the William Howard Taft Memorial Association in 1953 for $35,000 it was in a sad state of disrepair.  The home needed restoration, and once it was completed, the home was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

The home has been restored to the period when William H. Taft lived there during his childhood.  The first floor of the home has rooms decorated in period furnishings, and it’s beautiful!

The upstairs rooms are set up as exhibits, with information on Taft’s life and career.

The home is open as a part of a tour, but you are welcome to go through the upstairs exhibit areas at your own pace and take your time.  The Visitor’s Center has an interesting movie on William H. Taft and his life and career.  Be sure to check it out!  The day that I was there, there was a large bus tour of elderly women, but they were on the tour in front of me; my tour was fairly small.  You can see it all in about 90 minutes; and keep in mind, I go slowly…

Taft wasn’t a President I knew much about, but the William J. Taft National Historic Site provided an interesting overview of an accomplished man.

Circus Trip 2018: Mary Todd Lincoln

Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lexington, Kentucky

My first morning in Lexington, I knew I wanted to visit the Mary Todd Lincoln house.  It was pouring rain, so an indoor activity was perfect!  If you don’t already know, Mary Todd Lincoln was President Abraham Lincoln’s wife.  Most of you have probably heard of her, and I imagine what you have heard has been negative…  Mary Lincoln (she didn’t use her maiden name after marrying – we have added the Todd back in later in history) has been unfairly maligned, so maybe I can offer some information in her favor.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House

Mary was the fourth child of Robert Todd and his first wife Elizabeth “Eliza”; her mother died in childbirth when Mary was six years old.  Soon after, Robert married his second wife Elizabeth “Betsy,” and the couple had nine more children.  Mary’s relationship with her stepmother was rocky; but although history books often seem to portray Mary being the only problem child, it has been documented that none of the first six Todd children liked their step-mother.  Their father was distant and often absent, leaving the raising of the children to Betsy and the slaves.  Mary spent several years of her childhood in this home in Lexington, living in comfort; the family were slaveholders and she grew up attending a refining school, where she learned French, literature, dance, music, and social graces.  Mary was also raised with a knowledge of politics and formed her own opinions, long before she met or married Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln – 1846 – from Wikipedia

Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois at the age of 20 to live with her sister; it was there that she met Abraham Lincoln.  Before courting Lincoln, his rival Stephen Douglas was also a suitor of hers, and it is no surprise, as Mary was pretty, refined, witty and intelligent.  During the Lincoln Presidency, her detractors criticized her for all sorts of perceived transgressions.  She was considered a traitor to the Union cause because several of her brothers served in the Confederacy.  What do you expect though?  Her family was from Kentucky, a border state and a slave state; loyalties there were divided.  The Lincolns were not the only family to have family members on both sides of the war – it was quite common.

Mary was villainized for her extravagant spending in the White House; modern historians theorize that it was a symptom of bipolar disorder, as she was known to swing between seemingly manic periods and deep depressions.  Another historian believed she suffered from pernicious anemia, which can apparently also cause these symptoms. The White House was in need of repair and updating too!  Mary was tasked with redecorating the White House; and as a woman of the time period, she set herself on this task that was one of the only things it was acceptable for a woman to control.  Perhaps she went a bit overboard, but the White House was essentially a pit when they moved in!

Regardless of whether she was mentally or physically ill, who could blame her for being a bit erratic?  Her every move as the President’s wife was watched and criticized by the media and Lincoln’s political rivals.  Contrary to modern-day beliefs, there was just as much mud-slinging and politicians and their supporters made vicious attacks on those they didn’t agree with then too.

Mary lost three of her four sons before they reached adulthood (Tad was 18 when he died); Robert Todd Lincoln was her only immediate family member to survive her.  She was sitting next to Lincoln as he was shot at point blank range in Ford’s Theatre; he slumped over onto her and she held him up until the doctors arrived.  All of this would make any of us go a little bit crazy.  It’s sad that nobody talks about how well she held up in the face of enormous pressure and grief.

As if that weren’t enough, her surviving son Robert had her committed to a mental institution.  He gained control of her finances after she was institutionalized; did he really have her best interest at heart?  She was only there for a few months before convincing the doctors that she was indeed sane, and was released.  Understandably, it created a rift in her relationship with her son that lasted the rest of her life.  I’m not sure I would trust my son after that move either…  After years of declining health, Mary died in 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield, where she had lived for several years.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his former law partner William Herndon was responsible for the biography that provided much of the information on Lincoln’s pre-White House life.  It is also known that Herndon and Mary Lincoln did not get along (that’s putting in mildly) and many scholars believed that Herndon unfairly portrayed Mary as a “serpent,” “she-wolf,” and the “female wild cat of the age.”  Was the characterization fair, or merely the result of a man who despised that she did not confine herself to the social norms of the era?

I’m reading Jean Baker’s biography, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography to learn more.  I’ll tell you about my visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln House next!

 

 

Circus Trip 2018: Grouseland

Day 27, Saturday, August 11, 2018

Vincennes, Indiana

Grouseland is incredible.  It is the Federal/ Georgian style home of future President William Henry Harrison, during part of the time when he served as the governor of the Indiana Territory.  The home was completed in 1804, and was the first brick home in Indiana, built at a cost of $20,000, which is between $700,000 and a million dollars in today’s money.  Interestingly, it was also built as a fortress to protect the family and the seat of government from Indian attack and other situations of unrest in the territory.

 

Harrison had his home built with a number of unusual features that made it particularly able to withstand any attack.  The walls were 28 inches thick in places, and there are strong shutters on both the outside and the inside of the windows, that allowed them to be closed without leaving the house.  There is an armory in the basement complete with a well, to allow for the collection of water without leaving the house.  This place was definitely ready for any potential siege.  Even with all of its protective features, it is still a beautiful, ornate home.

After Harrison moved out because the territory’s capitol moved to Corydon, the home was occupied by another prominent Vincennes man, and then it was acquired by the Vincennes Water Company, who intended to demolish it.  The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), managed to buy the home on a limited deed for $2,000, which allowed them to operate it as a historic house museum, and then they saved enough money to restore the home.  It was opened to the public in 1911.  It has been a museum for over 100 years!  Today Grouseland contains some furnishings that were original to the Harrison family, and you can see still most of the original features of the home.

And as for Harrison?  Well, it you are up on your Presidential history, you will know that Harrison has the dubious title of being the American President with the shortest term.  He served 31 days, from March 4, 1841, to April 4, 1841, before dying in office of what was likely either pneumonia or typhoid from drinking contaminated water at the White House – the scholars disagree.  His death sparked a controversy over the succession of the office; some believed that the Vice-President became the next President automatically, while others believed that the VP only assumed the duties until an election could be held. Harrison’s Vice-President, John Tyler, asserted the former, and fulfilled the role until the end of Harrison’s term.  Eventually the language was clarified in favor of the “VP becomes the President” view.

There were three of us on my tour, me and a father son duo who joined a little late.  The docent was knowledgeable, explaining facts about Harrison both before and after his Presidency.  My knowledge of the Revolution and the French and Indian Wars is a bit sketchy, so although I’m sure I heard about the Battle of Tippecanoe, it wasn’t something I feel well versed in.  In case you were wondering, it is where the Presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” came from.

Harrison was a controversial figure in his dealings with the Native Americans, with many tribal leaders feeling like he was making deals with chiefs who didn’t have the authority to sell the land.  Of course, we know how that all turned out for the tribe.  It seems having 28-inch-thick walls in his home was probably a pretty good idea.

The mansion is incredible, with 13 rooms and a finished basement.  It was fancy for the time period, and they had period furnishings that show it off as it would have looked at the time.  She also explained the spot outside where Tecumseh is thought to have stood with his warriors and expressed his dissatisfaction with Harrison’s land treaties.

The drawback is that you aren’t allowed to take pictures; I did manage to sneak one of the dining room though – I’m such a rebel!

I didn’t know much about Harrison, but it was a fascinating place to check out!

 

Circus Trip 2018: Herbert Hoover Birthplace NHS

Day 19, Friday, August 3, 2018

Herbert Hoover isn’t a President I know much about.  In fact, I didn’t even know about the Herbert Hoover Birthplace National Historic Site, and kind of stumbled upon it by accident.  I saw the road sign as I was driving east after visiting the Amana Colonies and had enough time to stop before it closed for the day; I arrived just before 4pm.  What an unexpected treat!

Hoover was born to Quaker parents in a small two-room cottage in West Branch, Iowa on August 10, 1874.  He was orphaned at the age of nine, when his mother died at age 35 (his father had died in 1880 at the age of 34, when Herbert Hoover was 6).  He and his two siblings were split up after his mother’s death, each living in a different relative’s home; Hoover was sent to Oregon at the age of 11 to live with a maternal uncle and aunt.

The cottage where Herbert Hoover was born

The Herbert Hoover Birthplace NHS preserves the two-room cottage where Hoover was born, as well as several other sites significant to his early childhood.  His father’s Blacksmith Shop (rebuilt a little west of the original site), the Schoolhouse, and the Quaker Friends Meetinghouse, where the family worshiped, have all been preserved.  It is unknown if Hoover attended school in the actual building at the site, although it was being used as the primary school at the time Hoover was in school in West Branch, having been built in 1853.  The Blacksmith Shop was built in 1957, representing what such a shop would have been like in the 1870s.  Herbert Hoover’s older brother Theodore provided sketches of his recollection of his father’s shop as well.

The Friends Meetinghouse is original to the community where Hoover’s Quaker family worshiped; it was built in 1857.  The Quakers held two meetings each week to worship; men and women sat on different sides of a central partition.  They worship with “silent waiting,” a form of silent worship that does not use music or sacraments, or even a paid minister delivering a sermon.  When a Quaker is moved by the “inward light,” they stand and share their insight or prayers.  If you become known for your inspired insights, you become a “recorded minister” and are given a seat on the benches up front with the Quaker elders.  Herbert’s mother Hulda was considered a recorded minister.  Quakers believe in the equality of all people, a value that Hoover embodied when he was President and during his global humanitarian work.

The Quaker meetinghouse Hoover attended

 

The interior of the Quaker meetinghouse

The site also has a Visitor’s Center with a movie about Herbert Hoover and his life, and of course, stamps for my National Parks Passport.  There are also some later homes at the site; although they didn’t exist at the time that Hoover lived in West Branch, they add to the historic ambiance of the site.

A short drive away is Herbert Hoover’s grave site, along with the grave of his wife, Lou Henry Hoover.  Hoover died on October 20, 1964, at the age of 90.  He selected his grave site to look over his birthplace home, and chose a simple design of white marble, with a curved walkway and an American flag.  Lou Henry Hoover died in 1944 and was buried in Palo Alto, CA, but was re-interred here after Herbert Hoover died.  His Presidential Library is also there, although I didn’t have time to visit it that day.  I’ll have to return and learn more!

Herbert and Lou Hoover’s graves

 

The view from Hoover’s grave – his birthplace home

It was a fascinating stop!