President Abraham Lincoln, The Moral Politician

In honor of Presidents’ Day weekend and African-American History Month, I am revisiting this post from last year on Abraham Lincoln.

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

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Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

U.S. President William McKinley

One of many presidents who grew up in Ohio, William McKinley always believed he would be president someday. He inherited a poor economy from President Cleveland and wanted to focus on America’s domestic problems.

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Official Presidential Portrait of William McKinley

Instead, he ended up presiding over a war with Spain. Having already witnessed the Civil War, McKinley had no desire to involve the country in Cuba’s fight for independence. Once the U.S. warship Maine exploded in Havana’s harbor, however, McKinley was pressured by the public to declare war. He finally gave in.

Once committed to a war, McKinley set out to win it. He set up the first modern war room in a corner office of the White House. By the war’s end the U.S. emerged for the first time as a world power. The United States not only served as protector of Cuba, but also took Puerto Rico and Guam from the Spaniards.

A confident president McKinley also sought to take the Philippines from Spain, but the Filipinos fought back. In order to subdue them, U.S. soldiers resorted to tactics such as burning villages in which innocent people, including children, were killed. McKinley disliked the atrocity stories but believed strongly in Manifest Destiny. He saw it as America’s duty to civilize the Filipinos and convert them to Christianity.

The bullet of an assassin ended the president’s second term during a cross-country tour. That trip was the last time a president traveled without the Secret Service.

 

Frequently Forgotten President Benjamin Harrison

In 1888 President Cleveland lost the election to Benjamin Harrison. Harrison ran on a pro-business platform and hailed from Indiana, a state that had a healthy number of electoral votes. The election was so close that without states like Indiana and New York, Harrison could not have won.

Throughout his life Benjamin Harrison wanted to be known as an individual. He did not want his presidential campaign to mention his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison. Against his wishes his campaign supporters used references to “Tippecanoe” and his grandfather’s allegedly humble origins.

They also pointed out that the grandson had inherited his grandfather’s reputation as a fighter. During the Civil War Harrison fought in as many battles as possible. In 1864 he joined General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.

Benjamin_Harrison_(official_Presidential_portrait,_1895)

Official Presidential Portrait of Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s actions as president included generous pensions for Civil War veterans and the signing of an anti-trust law. Under Harrison and the next few presidents, the law, meant to prevent the establishment of monopolies, remained mainly symbolic. Harrison did not wish to anger the businessmen who helped elect him.

The American voters were unimpressed by Harrison’s spending of millions of dollars on pensions and his pro-business stance. As a result his opponent (former President Grover Cleveland) was re-elected in 1892.

Harrison’s personality did nothing to endear him to voters either. Nicknamed “The Icebox” for his cold manner, he disliked having to deal with people outside his family. In public he often looked up at the sky so he would not have to greet others, even if he knew them! He was, however, very devoted to his wife, who died of tuberculosis during his re-election campaign. Harrison personally nursed her through her illness and didn’t care at all when he lost the election.

After his wife’s death he went home to Indiana. In his loneliness he married his wife’s niece, a circumstance that shocked his older children. The couple had a daughter, and Harrison doted on her until he died.

 

Frequently Forgotten President James A. Garfield

James Garfield was raised by a single mother in Ohio (his father died when he was two years old). He managed to save enough money to get through school. After college Garfield had various jobs as a preacher, professor, and college president. Garfield was never satisfied with any of these occupations or with having just one girlfriend. He courted his future wife Lucretia for so long that she was ready to give him up, but he finally grew into a devoted family man.

When the Civil War began Garfield served as the country’s youngest major general. President Lincoln convinced him to resign his commission, however, when his home state elected him to Congress. Garfield never lost an election and served for nearly two decades.

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Official presidential portrait of James Garfield

During the 1880 Republican convention Garfield’s name was put forward, though he tried to object. In a crowded field that included former President Grant, Garfield won the nomination. With the help of powerful Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling he narrowly won the presidency, too.

Ironically, Garfield and Conkling were soon pitted against each other in an argument over federal appointments. Though Garfield had nominated some of Conkling’s friends for other positions, he appointed one of Conkling’s rivals to the New York Customs House.

Garfield surprised Conkling and almost everyone else when he refused to back down. “This…will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States,” he said. It seemed that the country had finally found a strong chief executive.

Only a few month into his presidency, a young man who had unsuccessfully sought a position in the government shot Garfield. Garfield lingered for months. An early air conditioning unit was installed in the White House to keep Garfield cool in the summer. Alexander Graham Bell even tried to find the location of the bullet, which remained inside the president, with a new electrical invention. After being moved to the Jersey shore, however, Garfield died.

Abraham Lincoln: The Moral Politician

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

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Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

 

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

 

Moving Toward Civil War: The Presidency of Franklin Pierce

As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.

Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.

He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.

Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.

Not What their Party Ordered: The Surprising Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Taylor was best known as a general rather than a politician. In fact, he had never voted in a presidential election. That was somewhat understandable since he was usually busy fighting battles. He earned his nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Seminole War in Florida. His men admired the fact that he fought beside them on the front lines. They also liked his independent spirit. Instead of a uniform Taylor wore a straw hat and civilian clothes.

At age sixty-one he led troops into Mexico in the fight for Texas. A new invention, the telegraph, was used for the first time to provide daily progress of the war. News of Taylor’s victories in the Mexican American War made him very popular. Despite or perhaps because his opinion on most issues was unknown, the Whigs chose him as their candidate in 1848.

Since Taylor was a slave owner, southerners expected him to support the expansion of slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Taylor surprised almost everyone. He resolved to leave slavery in states where it existed but opposed its expansion. When Congressmen tried to work out a compromise, Taylor threatened to veto it. He said of the Union, “Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by and maintain it.”

Taylor never had a showdown with Congress. After a July 4th celebration he drank some tainted milk and died days later of gastritis.

Millard Fillmore

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Official White House Portrait of Millard Fillmore

Taylor’s vice-president Millard Fillmore took office after Taylor’s death. Fillmore grew up in extreme poverty. He was mostly self-educated, but he was encouraged by a schoolteacher named Abigail to study law. Later, Abigail became his wife. Ironically, he was chosen to balance the Whig ticket as a non-slave owner from New York. Yet, unlike Taylor, he was prepared to allow the spread of slavery.

He supported the Compromise of 1850 under which California was made a free state while the New Mexico and Utah territories were left open to slavery. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, but a new fugitive slave law offered $10 to anyone who handed over an African-American to federal authorities. Although Fillmore disliked slavery, he thought that states and not the federal government should decide where it would or would not exist.

After the passage of the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore thought the slavery issue was resolved. Yet both North and South were dissatisfied with the Compromise. The Whigs chose not to nominate Fillmore in the next election. Fillmore looked forward to a happy retirement with his beloved Abigail. Sadly she died before he left Washington.

Fillmore lived for over twenty years after his presidency. He even ran for the office one more time as a third party candidate but lost. During the Civil War he supported the Union. Nevertheless, some never forgot his support of the Fugitive Slave Law. After President Lincoln’s assassination a mob tried to paint Fillmore’s home black.

The Building of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was finally completed. The word “finally” is appropriate since construction on the monument ended 85 years after George Washington’s death.

While Washington was still alive many people wanted to dedicate statues to him, but he declined. He thought the country should spend its money on other things. Shortly after Washington’s death, John Marshall proposed a memorial to the first president. The memorial was to be built in the style of the ancient Egyptian tombs with a pyramid serving as Washington’s burial place. However, Congress could not agree on the design.

Thirty-seven years later John Marshall, who was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to fight for a memorial. In 1832 the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society decided to hold a competition for the best design while collecting donations from citizens across the country.

Designs came in from around the world. The society required only that each design be “durable, simple, and grand.” Finally they chose a design by Robert Mills, a church architect from Charleston. Mills’ design included a temple with an Egyptian obelisk on top. Inside a colossal statue of Washington and a museum about Washington’s life were to be placed. Because the design was so expensive ($1 million in the 19th century), the society decided to start with the obelisk first.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 with the same trowel that Washington used for the cornerstone of the capital. In a crowd of over 20,000 people that day were three future presidents, including a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

To raise money for the monument states were encouraged to donate commemorative stones to its interior. Even foreign countries donated stones to show their respect for the Revolutionary war hero and president. A controversy arose, however, when the Pope tried to donate a stone. Anti-Catholic groups stalled the construction.

During the Civil War the monument was again abandoned. Cattle grazed around it and soldiers practiced maneuvers in its shadow.

Congress decided to resume construction during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. All the arguments about the design resurfaced. Congress was still short on money. This time, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers under Lieut. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was put in charge of the construction.

The country’s anniversary made both Congress and Casey eager to finish the monument. The design was scaled back. It was decided that the temple would not be constructed–only the obelisk. Despite these cost-cutting measures Casey still had several issues to deal with. For example, the scaffolding was rotted and there were flaws in the foundation of the monument. Casey’s crew reinforced the foundation with concrete. He also carried out the original plan to include the 193 memorial stones donated by states and countries into the interior walls.

The outside stones for the monument presented other problem for Lieut. Casey. The quarry used for the initial construction was no longer available. The builders ended up using two additional quarries with varying colors of stone. Today visitors can see three slightly different colored stones from the three different quarries on the outside of the monument.

On December 6, 1884 Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the capstone was brought out through a window and set on top of the monument. The aluminum tip made by Tiffany‘s was put into place by the lieutenant himself. At 555 feet and 5 inches the monument was the tallest structure in the world. However, the Eiffel Tower surpassed it the following year. Nevertheless, it is still the tallest structure in Washington DC and serves as a landmark for everyone who visits the National Mall.

The Washington Monument’s exterior and interior have endured quite a bit over the years. For example, in 2011 an earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Though the monument was significantly damaged it was repaired successfully. The durability of the monument was anticipated at its dedication. During the ceremony, a speech by Robert Winthrop who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848 was read by Rep. John Long of Massachusetts. He said, “the storms of winter must blow and beat upon it…the lightnings of heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”

George Wasington Carver: The Life of the Peanut Man

Interesting Facts about George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, 1910

George Washington Carver, 1910

As a young slave in Diamond Grove, Missouri,

  • George Washington Carver knew very little about his parents. His mother’s name was Mary, but she and George were kidnapped when George was young and he never saw her again. His father died before George’s birth. After the Civil War ended, their former owners, Moses and Susan Carver, raised George and his
    brother Jim.
  • Young George got sick often as a child, so he did mostly household chores with Susan. The Carvers treated George like their own child, giving him free time to explore the woods on the family farm. They also taught him to read and George spent a lot of time with his spelling book.
  • George wanted to learn the names of plants, trees, animals, and flowers. Since he couldn’t find the answers in his spelling book, George sought other opportunities to go to school. His determination helped him walk eight miles to the Lincoln school for black children. Unfortunately, George soon discovered that the teacher didn’t know much more than he did.
  • George went to Kansas to finish his education, but he learned more about racial hatred there than anything else. At Ft. Scott, he saw a black man lynched and burned. Though he left Ft. Scott, he stayed in Kansas to finish high school.
  • To pay for his education, George worked a variety of jobs, including helping a black family with their laundry business.
  • Although he was accepted into Highland College in Kansas, when he arrived he was turned away because of the color of his skin. Eventually he graduated from Iowa State Agricultural College.
  • After graduation, George got an offer from Booker T. Washington to teach agriculture at Tuskegee Institute. He took the job because “It has always been the one ideal of my life to be the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people’ as possible.”
  • While at Tuskegee, George came up with new ways to help poor black farmers. For example, many farmers were only planting cotton, a crop that used up a lot of nutrients in the soil. George suggested that farmers plant crops like peanuts, which would nourish the soil. He said they should plant peanuts one year, and then plant cotton the next year.
  • After farmers started taking George’s advice, they had way too many peanuts. George had a solution, though—he found more than 300 uses for peanuts, including peanut milk and peanut soap!