Florence Harding and The Veterans

After World War I, thousands of wounded soldiers were crowding into Washington hospitals. Florence Harding would be a regular visitor.

Florence Kling Harding: Lonely Wife

Florence Harding never had a strong maternal instinct. An early and disastrous elopement left her a divorcee with a son, but her tyrannical father made her a devil’s offer: he would raise the boy as his own, provided she gave up parental rights. If it bothered her,  it is unrecorded. Her ties to her son, while not severed, were more like a distant aunt, rather than a mother.


Florence Harding was nicknamed “Duchess” by her husband – partly because of her domineering disposition.

A few years later, she married  Warren Harding. He was five years her junior, handsome and affable, with a lifelong wandering eye. She was relatively plain, domineering, and plagued with a chronic and serious kidney ailment. By the time they had been married for ten years, one of her kidneys had been removed, and while the couple would share a room, they would not share a bed. There were no Harding children together. Harding’s eye, and the rest of him, continued to wander.  It was not a happy marriage.

With little to keep her at home, Florence Harding gravitated to working at the Marion Star, the small-town weekly newspaper her husband had purchased some years earlier and helped build it into a strong Ohio daily. Nicknamed “Duchess” by her husband (in part because of her imperious manners and bossy disposition), Florence carved a niche for herself in the circulation department of the paper.   While Warren set the policy of the paper and wrote the editorials, she ran a fleet of newspaper delivery boys, and saw to it that both the subscribers and the advertisers paid their bills on time.

The consensus among “her boys” was that Mrs. H. was an exacting taskmistress, but was always kindly toward them. She would have their respect – and even some grudging affection.

Florence Harding: Political Wife

“The Duchess” and Warren Harding on their own front porch. He was a man who looked like he ought to be President.

Partly due to the Duchess’ administrative skills and attention to detail, the newspaper flourished and ran smoothly. Warren Harding now had time on his hands. In between regular bouts of infidelity, he found a niche for himself as well: as a popular guest speaker at various civic and political functions. He was good at it. He was invited to speak all around the state.

The Duchess was not a naïve woman, nor was she acquiescent.  She went with him whenever she could. Politics appealed to her. The hard-driving forceful men who populated that arena appealed to her. It was not considered an appropriate venue for women at that time, but Florence was an exception. The Ohio politicians who gravitated to Harding began to realize that a) she was the power behind the throne as it were, and also b) she made pretty good sense. They began to give the Duchess due respect, and a seat at their counsel table. She wore her nickname with pride, and gained their grudging affection. She was “one of the boys.”

Florence Harding Discovers More “Boys”

Florence and a vet

Florence Harding took a sincere and serious interest in wounded veterans of World War I.

In 1914, Warren Harding was elected Senator from Ohio.   The good-looking man was now a distinguished middle-aged man of fifty, with a shock of snow-white hair that made him look like a matinee idol. The Duchess, partly due to genetics and a failing kidney, looked old and frumpy.

While she had looked forward to starting a new life in Washington, she was lonely, and had few friends. Even though she left her card everywhere, she was invited only to the large affairs, where everyone was invited. She had not found her niche.

But by a rare stroke of good fortune, she had become acquainted with the wealthy Evalyn Walsh McLean. Her husband owned the Washington Post. She owned the Hope Diamond. Even though Evalyn was twenty-five years younger than Florence, a strong and sincere friendship was formed. Under Evalyn’s guidance, the Duchess purchased more fashionable clothing, went to more fashionable parties, and began to support more fashionable causes.

Both as Senate wife and First Lady, Florence Harding made regular visits to the Veterans Hospitals around Washington.

It was Evalyn who suggested that Florence visit the area’s veterans’ hospitals.   The Great War, as World War I was called then, had left thousands of American servicemen permanently wounded. The two women began dropping in at the hospitals once or twice a week to spend a couple of hours talking to the veterans, reading to them, playing cards with them, and otherwise being good company.   More often than not, they brought flowers or treats. Florence’s interest in them was sincere, and she would remain engaged with their cause for the rest of her life. They were “Her Boys,” with capital letters!

First Lady Florence Kling Harding

When Warren Harding became President in 1921, the Duchess had no intention of staying in the background. She wanted to be accessible. Folksy. One of the people.  So did he.

FLOTUS Florence Harding greets guests at one of her annual White House garden parties for veterans.

Perhaps the one act that gave her the most pleasure was opening the White House grounds for a garden party for wounded veterans. Notices went out to all the veterans’ hospitals in the area, and disabled soldiers came in droves. They came in wheelchairs and on crutches. They came on litters, and with canes. They came bandaged, they came blinded, they came leaning on others. They were treated to sandwiches and cakes and lemonade and fruit punch. First Lady “Duchess” was delighted to circulate among them, shaking as many hands as she could and offering a kind and heartfelt welcome.

It was such a hit, that she made the affair an annual event, and held them three times – until her husband’s early death.

At least at the veterans’ garden party Florence Harding was not only respected, but the affection was not grudging. She was loved.


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Abraham Lincoln, Father Abraham

There is no question that Abraham Lincoln loved his wife and children dearly, but was he a “family man” by nature?

Lincoln: The Family Child

thomas and sarah lincoln

Abraham Lincoln’s father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln. He was remote, she was encouraging.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born to a hard-working, but essentially poor family. By his own admission, his youth was “the annals of the poor.”   His mother died when he was nine. His older-by-two-years sister Sarah died in childbirth when she was still in her twenties.

Like many widowed men with small children, his father, Thomas Lincoln, planned to remarry not long after his wife’s funeral. Life was hard; spouses needed spouses. Recalling a childhood friend from years earlier, and knowing she was a widow with small children herself, he sought her out. They agreed to marry, a fortuitous event, at least in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Bush Johnston came into the family with three children in fair proximity to the Lincolns. Her son, John Johnston, would bond easily and pleasantly with Thomas Lincoln. They hunted, they fished, they were two of a kind – and it was a kind that Abraham never was. He, on the other hand, would bond with his new stepmother. She would later recall that “they understood each other.” It would be Sarah Lincoln who encouraged her stepson to read and learn.

If there was love in that family, it might better be described as “affectionate distance.”

Lincoln: The Non-Family Young Man

When Abraham Lincoln reached maturity (age 21), he set out on his own. He had nothing save the clothes on his back. Once he left the Lincoln household, he never returned, except for brief visits, although he kept in general touch – and was solicitous for the family’s welfare. He would eventually purchase the land for their homestead, so they would not be in want.

By sheer dint of his own efforts, he made his way in the world, and it was a struggle. Parlaying slight encouragement from casual mentors, and a disposition that always gained him friends and regard, he educated himself. He “read law” – alone, and managed to pass the Illinois bar.


Mary Owens was one of the few documented “romantic” episodes in Lincoln’s early life. She was a heavy woman, and Lincoln was not attracted to her.

His “romantic” experiences were few and unsatisfactory. According to Mary Owen his one “potential” romance, he “lacked those little links which make up the great chain of woman’s happiness.” Lincoln was not attracted to her, but even so…

As it was, it would not be until he was thirty and Mary Todd had entered his life, that Lincoln’s tender private feelings would be uncovered. It was a somewhat rocky romance, and historians have teetered back and forth for a hundred and fifty years to try to determine its true nature.

But they married; Mary became pregnant immediately. Lincoln, still poor and in debt, needed to earn a living. They had precious little time to devote to each other.

Lincoln: The Family Man

Abraham and Mary Lincoln would have four sons. Robert, Edward, Willie and Tad. Their second son, Eddie had always been sickly and died before his fourth birthday.

Lincoln family3

An idealized etching of the Lincoln family. Abraham, Willie, Tad, Robert and Mary. Their second son, Eddie, had died in early childhood.

Robert Lincoln, the couple’s eldest son, would claim that he barely knew his father. During his early years, the elder Lincoln was “riding the circuit” for weeks and even months at a time. Robert’s earliest memories centered around his mother, and some spotty recollections of his sick brother. By the time Willie and Tad were old enough to be his playmates, Robert was in prep school, preparing for college.

The “playful” Lincoln, the one that Willie and Tad knew better, was a Lincoln well past forty. While he was never wealthy, he had become comfortably middle-class, and could devote himself to his Springfield law office, rather than making a continual round-robin of Illinois court houses.

But even then, politics had far more allure to Father Lincoln than did home-and-family life. Having had little enjoyment of family when he was a boy himself, perhaps he had no point of reference.

It is also well known (and well commented) that Mary was a difficult woman, and perhaps Lincoln preferred the male camaraderie or even his solitude to the noise of the parlor atmosphere.

Finding the Time for the Family

Lincoln Family

An etching of The Lincoln family after Willie had died. Abraham and Mary, Tad and Robert.

Tad and Dad

Abraham Lincoln and Tad. The President was devoted to his youngest son, particularly after Willie had died.

President Lincoln was unquestionably beset with care, problems and a heavy workload during the four years of Civil War. He had even less time than before to devote to family matters. Even when his 11-year-old son Willie died, he had precious little time to mourn. He had little left in him to comfort his deeply troubled wife, whose intense mourning worried him. Robert was away at college, most of the time. The only thing that gave the President “family” comfort was his son Tad, who at eight, was still somewhat babyish.

Finally the Civil War ended. The bleeding had stopped. If the President urged the nation to bandage its wounds, so must the President. The morning of April 14, Robert Lincoln was home on leave from the Army, and had a chance to discuss his future with his father: he wanted to return to Harvard and go to law school. Lincoln agreed. Later that afternoon, in a rare drive with his wife – just the two of them – he began the binding of his own wounds, and discussed their future, once he retired from the Presidency. Mary would claim she had never seen her husband so cheerful.

He was finally making time for his family. But there wasn’t any time.



Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – Harper Collins, 2009

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008

Lachman, Charles – The Last Lincolns – Union Square Press, 2008


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Chester Alan Arthur: A VEEP on Hold

Campaign poster

The Republican candidates in 1880: James A. Garfield and Chester Alan Arthur.

Vice President Chester Alan Arthur became President following the assassination and death of James A. Garfield.

CAA: The Basics

Born in Vermont and raised in upstate New York, Chester Alan Arthur (183o-1886) was a preacher’s son who attended Union College, read law, established himself in New York City, and became the epitome of a sophisticated and well-to-do gentleman attorney with excellent administrative talents.


Chester Alan Arthur, noted mainly for his distinctive mutton-chop whiskers.

He became active in Republican politics, and met Senator Roscoe Conkling, a Utica attorney and the unquestioned Republican political boss of New York. Conkling would became Arthur’s mentor and close personal friend, and rewarded him in the 1870s by being named him Collector of the Port of New York, a prestigious and lucrative federal appointment.


Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the close friend and mentor of Chet Arthur.

The Port, along with the Customs House, was fraught with corruption. In the clean-sweep, reform-minded Hayes Administration, the overhaul of the Port was its cause celebre, and Chester Alan Arthur was its chief victim. He was personally honest, and no charges of malfeasance were ever brought, but he had turned a blind eye. He had to go. So he returned to private law practice and politics-as-usual.

The Surprising Nomination and Candidacy of Chet Arthur

The nomination and election of 1880 was one of the most fractious in Republican history, wrestled between spoils-system advocates called “Stalwarts,” and the “Half-Breeds”, just a tad more reform-minded. Spoilsman Conkling, a close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, had convinced the reluctant General to run for a third term. That nomination failed after days of maneuvering, posturing and balloting. James Garfield, a moderate and nominal Half-Breed, won the nod.

In an effort to mend fences, Garfield sought to appease an irate Conkling by offering the Vice Presidency to a New Yorker. It was an honorable, but non-substantive office, important only for geopolitical accommodation. When Chester Alan Arthur was approached, he sought Conkling’s counsel. “I would advise against it,” said the Senator.

But in a rare moment of independence, Arthur claimed that the Vice Presidency was a higher honor than he had ever dreamed of, and accepted.

James Garfield and Chester Alan Arthur won the election, which was a squeaker. But they carried New York.

The VP vs. the Cabinet

The Constitution stipulates that the Vice President presides over the Senate, and only votes in the event of a tie. In an odd occurrence, the Senate was equally divided between the Republicans and the Democrats, thus there were many ties, mostly of an administrative nature. VP Arthur consistently voted with the Conkling faction – frequently in opposition to the President’s wishes. There was a serious rift forming in the official family.

President Garfield sincerely tried to accommodate, but he was becoming disenchanted with his Vice President. The Cabinet was even more sour on him, believing Arthur to be no more than Conkling’s henchman.

The Assassination of Garfield


Charles Julius Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield. The President died ten weeks later.

Only four months into his administration, President Garfield was shot by an assassin. He would linger in pain for ten weeks until he expired.

The very first night – when there was concern that Garfield might die within hours, the Vice President was summoned from his New York townhouse. He took the night train to Washington and arrived the following morning. He paid his respects to Mrs. Garfield, and attended a Cabinet meeting, where he was promptly ignored. He had become anathema to the team that the President had laboriously cobbled together. Assured that Garfield’s prognosis had improved, Chet Arthur went back to New York.

Meanwhile, Charles Julius Guiteau, the certifiably insane assassin, had been apprehended and jailed, where he announced to the newspapers that he “was a Stalwart of the Stalwarts, and now Arthur will be President.”

CAA: The Guiteau Connection?

Chester Alan Arthur was as horrified by the chain of events as the rest of the country.

As Campaign Chairman, headquartered in New York during the election, Chet Arthur had regularly “seen” the peculiar little man who haunted the waiting room nearly every day, pestering the politicians. The gentlemanly chairman usually tipped his hat to all, and murmured the “good morning” or “good afternoon” pleasantries. Guiteau was convinced in his diseased mind, that Arthur was his “friend.”

Thus the Vice President was inexorably liked to Guiteau, the assassin. Rumors spread like wildfire. Some people believed that Arthur had been complicit – or had even masterminded the horrific deed. Guiteau lost no opportunity for public fanfare (and the general public, then as now, were insatiable in their desire for news) and expected a reward for “president-making.” Chet Arthur became understandably fearful of reprisals or even lynching.

He made no statements or left his town house.

VP Arthur Refuses to Assume Duties

So why didn’t the Vice President assume the duties of a President who was critically ill and would never rise from his sickbed? Three prior Vice Presidents had assumed office upon the death of a President, but never for the incapacity of an ailing one.

There was no constitutional or legislative mechanics for such a step.

In addition, it was summer. Congress had adjourned and its members had gone home. Few people stayed in sultry Washington if they could avoid it. President Garfield had even been en route to a well-needed vacation himself.


Chester Alan Arthur, a perceived political hack, grew substantially in office, and became a surprisingly competent President.

Finally strange as it may seem today, very little presidential business transpired that summer of 1881. In the ten weeks that Garfield lay dying, his signature was only needed once – for a routine matter.

Vice President Arthur had categorically refused to assume any presidential responsibilities as long as Garfield was alive. And for this, he was heartily applauded for his restraint.

As the evidence of Guiteau’s insanity became more and more apparent, the estimation of the impeccably behaved Chet Arthur rose in the eyes of his countrymen. As President, he continued to assert his independence and gradually disassociated himself from Conkling’s influence. He brought his sophistication and style to the White House, as well as a competent and fair-minded, albeit not inspired, administration.


Kenneth D. Ackerman – The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield – Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003

Barzman, Sol – Madmen and Geniuses: The Vice Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974





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Sarah Knox Taylor: The First Mrs. Jeff Davis

Sarah Knox Taylor, the second daughter of Zachary Taylor, and the first wife of Jefferson Davis.

Sarah may have been a tiny little blip in history, but her connections are cool!

Sarah Knox Taylor: The Army Brat

General Zachary Taylor, career military officer who came up through the ranks. They called him “Old Rough and Ready.”

Zachary Taylor was a forty-year career soldier who rose through the ranks. He was born in Virginia and raised on a respectable plantation outside Louisville, Kentucky and eventually married Margaret Mackall Smith, of ditto gentry from Maryland.

Sarah Knox Taylor (1814-35) was born and raised in the U.S. Army. Called “Knox” by the family (for her birth at Ft. Knox which was then in Indiana), she was the second daughter born to the Taylors. They would have six children, four living to maturity: three daughters and a son. Taylor’s career kept him moving from pillar to post in keeping with the army’s deployment requirements. It was a harsh and dangerous life.

Accordingly, the customary upbringing for military children in the early 19th century was to keep them at home until they reached schooling age, somewhere around seven or eight. Then they would be taken “back east” to be educated under the general supervision of family members. Once they were in their mid-teens, they reunited with their parents.

Sarah Knox Taylor Falls In Love

When Knox was seventeen, she was back with her parents at Ft. Crawford in Wisconsin. It was the time of the Black Hawk War (known primarily as the skirmish that gave Abraham Lincoln “veteran” status). Her father was in command of the fort. His second-in-command was a young West Point graduate, Lt. Jefferson Davis. He had the fortune (or misfortune) to fall in love with his commanding officer’s daughter. She returned the affection with all her heart.

While there is a fair amount of controversy about exactly why Zachary Taylor disapproved of the match, the one thing that stands out is the simple fact that Taylor was adamantly opposed to any of his children marrying into the army. He believed it was too harsh a life and detrimental to their health. Two young daughters had already died from frontier-related ailments. In short, he wanted better for his kids. Most sources generally believe that Taylor respected Davis as an officer and gentleman, and that the objection was “not personal.” They were both, of course, flinty-natured, stubborn and difficult.

The romance between Jeff Davis and Knox Taylor (who he always called “Sarah,”) lasted for three years, steady and true. When he was deployed elsewhere, their romance was maintained via correspondence. It seems that stubbornness ran in the Taylor family. She was not about to change her mind or affection either.

The Davis-Taylor Elopement

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, a little known First Lady. She was first and foremost, an army-wife.

Jefferson Davis tried many times to sway then-Colonel Taylor to consent to the marriage. It was impossible. If Mrs. Taylor had anything to say about it, it is unrecorded. Davis however, had a “plan B”: Since his military “obligation” had been fulfilled, he decided to resign his commission and enter the private sector. Perhaps by offering his bride a non-military life he would surmount Taylor’s objections. It didn’t work. So Jeff and Sarah decided to elope. It was a hard decision, since both of them truly wanted her parents in attendance. But they wanted to get married even more.

They tied the knot in June, 1835, at the home of Sarah’s aunt, who lived in Louisville. It was a small wedding, saddened by the fact that neither Colonel nor Mrs. Taylor were in attendance. Then, private citizen Davis took his new bride to New Orleans to introduce her to his family.

Sarah and Jeff Davis: The Sad Little Story


Young Jefferson Davis. He mourned the death of Sarah for eight years – at least. Some say he mourned her forever.

The Davis family liked Sarah and welcomed her warmly.  But New Orleans was hot and sultry, especially in the summer, when it was enveloped by a miasmal atmosphere. Both bride and groom developed malaria. She died. He recovered. They had only been married for three months. He buried her in the Davis family plot, and would mourn her death deeply for the next eight years, living reclusively on his plantation in Mississippi. Some say, he mourned her death for the rest of his life.

Naturally this did not improve the relationship between Davis and his erstwhile in-laws. They believed he contributed to their daughter’s death via such an inhospitable climate. This did not deter Colonel Taylor from purchasing a plantation in equally sultry Baton Rouge, Louisiana however.

The Davis-Taylor Reconciliation

A dozen years later, recently-remarried Jefferson Davis was a Congressman. Zachary Taylor was now a full General of the Army, in senior command during the War with Mexico. Davis, West Point-trained, and always a soldier at heart, resigned his congressional seat to re-enter the army in charge of a voluntary Mississippi brigade.

In one of those accidents of fate, General Taylor and ex-Congressman Davis met on a steamboat headed for the Texas-Mexican border, and it is said that Taylor embraced Davis as a “son.” Perhaps it was his remaining link with his daughter; perhaps Davis had redeemed himself in Taylor’s eyes. Whatever it was, the relationship was re-cemented, and now-Colonel Davis was invited to join Taylor’s personal staff, where his performance as a soldier was commendable.

Not long afterwards, Taylor grudgingly accepted the Whig nomination for U.S. President in 1848, and won easily. Davis, by that time, was back in Congress. Both he and his second wife would be considered “family.” They were at Taylor’s bedside when the old General died in the White House.

The P.S. to the story: all three of Zachary Taylor’s daughters married soldiers. His son, Richard Taylor, would be a military man himself, and a General under his former brother-in-law, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. So much for parental authority.



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The Three Lives of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was only 60 years old when he died. The country was stunned. How could TR allow himself to be blindsided by the Grim Reaper?

TR’s Death

The real truth was that TR, the poster-boy for the strenuous life, had been in poor health for several years, stemming from his South American adventure-cum-tropical-diseases, an assassin’s bullet still lodged in his chest, and an assortment of other ills. That he survived as long as he did is a testimony to his aforesaid strenuous life and indomitable will.

The metaphorical truth is that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) died of extreme old age, having lived (at least) three lives at a time, and all to the fullest. That would make him nearly two hundred years old, a big number, by any calculation.

TR: The Life of a Politician

Sargeant Teddy

The formal Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt depicts every inch the professional statesman and politician that he was.

Interestingly enough, our Founding Fathers and their contemporaries believed wholeheartedly in the concept of noblesse oblige. Those who were privileged were expected to take a place on their governing council, whatever and wherever it was. Our originators wanted the best and the brightest to assume the heaviest responsibilities.

A century later, or post-Civil War, things had changed. Most people of privilege looked upon a political life for their sons as they would look at a career on the stage for their daughters. A presidential “advisor” perhaps. A member of a “blue ribbon panel” perhaps. But a candidate for office? Abhorrent!

Theodore Roosevelt was then, an anomaly. He was a member in good standing, not only of the upper crust, but of New York’s Knickerbocker upper crust. His family came over on one of the next ships post-Mayflower. They made a fortune and thrived. But they were never a) snobbish, and b) were always inclined toward the noblesse oblige. Philanthropic, generous and morally upright.

How a Harvard educated, foppish, intellectually inclined Theodore chose to mix it up with the hard-drinking, back-scratching recent immigrants who filled every spittoon in every City Hall in the country has always presented a puzzle for historians.

But mix it up he did – and they loved him for it! Toothy, bespectacled and non-stop fist-thumping talker notwithstanding. He was real. He was decent. He obviously relished the company, and (much overlooked) he was very, very smart.

He spent the better part of forty years in Republican politics, and made the profession respectable-for-gentry again. His political interests were far reaching: from New York tenement sweatshops to building navies, and from war and peace in the abstract to War and Peace in the specifics. This in itself is a wonderment: the most bellicose of Presidents was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize!

And, as a professional politician (in the true sense of the word), he was one of the best.

TR’s First Love

cowboy ted

Hunter, sportsman, natural scientist – all were a part of TR’s great love for the great outdoors.

Politics, however, was not Theodore’s first love or first choice. Long before he even knew what politics was, a sickly, frail and asthmatic child fell in love with natural science. His far reaching political interests were dwarfed in comparison to the wide and varied interests he found in nature, whether it was plants or rocks, insects, birds, critters of all kinds, or merely a good view. He learned everything he could about them. By age seven, his collections were already impressive. By twelve, he was a bona fide taxidermist.

That TR would choose “natural science” as a profession is a no-brainer. But he did not.

Today, natural science offers literally hundreds of opportunities for a professional to make his mark. In the 1870s, the field was limited to the university or the laboratory. Perhaps Theodore realized that such a “small” professional universe would never fulfill his oversized personality, or give him the chance to make His Name.

TR and muir

. As President, TR was in a position to use his love of natural science for the good of all Americans.

Nevertheless, natural science would be his truest love, and would last a lifetime. As President, he set aside millions of acres out west as national parks, wildlife preserves, and national monuments for the benefit of generations of future Americans (and visitors).   It was not “in name only.”  He spent weeks and months personally enjoying his camp-outings.

Theodore Roosevelt might have made a substantive-but-limited professional career in natural history in the nineteenth century. He could easily do the same today, and be at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

TR: The Author’s Life

By the time twenty-one-year-old Theodore was about to graduate Harvard, he had already drafted a book about (of all things) The U.S. Naval War of 1812. Naval history, and indeed, history of all kinds, was another of his passions. His book, when published shortly thereafter, became the gold standard on that subject for many years. Writing may or may not have been secondary to reading for him, but he managed to write forty books in forty years. How many books he read in fifty-five years is unknown. And that doesn’t count the dozens and dozens of articles he wrote for newspapers and magazines. And the thousands of personal letters he wrote.

the great room

The Great Room at Sagamore Hill, TR’s home on Long Island Sound, is a treasure trove of his favorite things: presidential, scienc-y, and, of course, loaded with books!

All writers are readers, by sheer necessity as well as inclination. Theodore Roosevelt, partly due to his childhood frailties and partly due to his enormous intelligence, but mostly due to the breadth and scope of his interests, was a prodigious reader. It is said that he read a book-a-day just about all his life.

So how does he rate as a writer?

Theodore Roosevelt-the-author would not be a serious challenge to Shakespeare, Poe or even Stephen King. He wrote off the top of his talents; meaning that he did not put the same serious effort into the craft as he did with science or politics. But he did possess a dandy way with a phrase, a superb vocabulary, a gift of on-the-mark clarity, and if nothing else, a huge volume of words.


Theodore Roosevelt packed more life into sixty years than Methuselah did in nine-hundred and sixty.

We are lucky to have had him, for goodly and for badly, in our lives and memory.


Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 BasicBooks

Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage

McCullough, David – Mornings on Horseback – 1982, Simon & Schuster

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House


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Grace and Calvin Coolidge on the Farm

President Calvin Coolidge loved to take his wife with him on Presidential out-and-abouts. She was pretty, she was stylish, and she had an impish humor. She was enormously popular.

President and Mrs. Coolidge

calvin and grace

President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. He loved taking her with him when he appeared publicly.

Calvin Coolidge was arguably the most sexist president we ever had. He believed politics was a man’s business, in fact, ALL business was a man’s business. Women were for home and family and always as supporting players. “Don’t try anything new, Grace,” was his advice to her when they assumed the First Couple-hood.

If Grace didn’t like being shunted to the background, she never seemed to object. Despite her own college education (University of Vermont), and despite being a teacher of the deaf – back in 1900 – Grace Goodhue was content to be Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, housewife. He would always be the breadwinner, she the bread baker.

Nevertheless, despite the inequality of the marriage to modern eyes, it was a happy union. Calvin Coolidge loved his wife dearly and she knew it. And if anyone had suggested that he was dismissive of her, or disrespectful, he would have been crushed. His love went deep and it was true. And for her part, when her parents tried to dissuade their outgoing and personable daughter her from marrying such a silent and cold fish, she countered with, “But he makes me laugh.”

And indeed, a good part of the success of that marriage was due to their senses of humor. His was Saharan in its dryness, all the more so because of the unexpected wit from such a bland persona. And when it was delivered in his usual dead-panned expression, people were hilarious. Her humor was teasing and mocking; delightful when it was accompanied by her wall-to-wall smile. And they never seemed to tire of bantering with each other.

Smiling Grace

Grace Coolidge was enormously popular during her time as First Lady. She had an infectious smile.

At every opportunity, President Coolidge loved to have his pretty wife along wherever he was invited. Not only was she attractive to look at, but she had innate charm and a genuine love of people which came across all the time.  She could also be trusted to avoid making any public statements other than “thank you for the flowers.”

The Farm Story

One delicious (and oft-told) story about the Coolidge tease, is when the President was invited to inspect a government-run experimental farm. It was reputed to have some of the most modern technology for the 1920s. Coolidge was a farm boy himself, having grown up on his father’s farm in Plymouth Notch, VT. He knew about a lot about farming. Grace was not a farmer’s daughter, but ever since her marriage, regular visits to the Coolidge farm were on their agenda. Calvin and his dad were particularly close.

So Coolidge accepted the invitation, and brought his Missus. They were both treated to a comprehensive tour – but they were separate tours. She, to get the “overall” view, and he to inspect in greater detail.

The Coolidges

You would never guess from the serious expressions that both Coolidges had a delicious sense of humor.

En route, Mrs. Coolidge was taken to a large enclosure with a henhouse, filled to capacity with hens and little chicks, but she could see only one rooster. When she remarked about it, the farmer boasted of his “prize” rooster – one able to “service” the enter lot. She queried, “Just how many times a day does this prize rooster ‘copulate’?” When told that rooster could mate perhaps 35-40 times a day, Mrs. Coolidge twinkled to her host, “You must be sure to tell that to President Coolidge when he passes this way.”

Sure enough a half hour later, the President and his escorts passed that same henhouse, and was given Mrs. Coolidge’s “message.” Coolidge nodded, and was his usual silent self, until they were about to leave the area.

“Hmmmm. Thirty or forty times a day,” he twanged. “Same hen?” “Oh no,” said the farmer, “he services them all.” Coolidge didn’t miss a beat. “You be sure to tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” he added.





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Lucy Hayes and the Laced Oranges


Young Rutherford and Lucy Hayes. Shortly after they married, he “took the pledge” of abstinence, and remained true to his word.

Lucy Hayes has gone down in history as “Lemonade Lucy” for banning spirits in the White House – but did people find a way around it?


The Spirits of ‘76

Samuel B. Tilden was the Democratic Governor of New York, and won the popular vote in the Presidential election of 1876. He also won the electoral vote, but was outflanked by some Republican maneuvering.

The election of 1876 was one of the most fractious and genuinely corrupt in history. A decade after the Civil War, an unpopular Reconstruction policy was splintering the country. Samuel Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, was the likely victor, winning the popular vote but was seemingly finagled out of the presidency by some very fancy political footwork by the Republicans in the electoral college, thus making Rutherford B . Hayes, Governor of Ohio, the 19th President.

The incoming First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes (1831-1889) was a devout Methodist, and a lifelong teetotaler. A devoted wife and mother, she had become enthralled by the preachers and orators who railed against John Barleycorn. Her husband, a tad less virtuous, had been known to bend a convivial elbow in fellowship. But that was back in his youth. In the early days of their marriage Hayes had taken the pledge, possibly in compliance with Lucy’s request, and signed the book in the presence of the pillars of local society who bore witness. Breaking one’s word was a serious offense against one’s honor and integrity. Rutherford B. Hayes was a man of his word.

President Rutherford B. Hayes

“Rud” Hayes was a lawyer, who at aged forty, enlisted in the Union army and rose to become a major general – a field general.  He had led his troops in battle and was wounded four times, once seriously. He was blessed with a character and kind personality that engendered not only respect from his men, but their sincere affection. Both Rutherford and Lucy Hayes would remain deeply involved in veterans’ affairs for the rest of their lives.

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President, had been a lawyer, a wounded Major General, Congressman and Governor of Ohio. He distanced himself from ay chicanery, but was happy to assume the Presidency.

After the war, he served two terms in Congress and then was elected a two-term governor of Ohio. In those post-rebellious years, a Republican lawyer, a wounded general, congressman and governor were impeccable credentials. Being from Ohio, an important industrial state with thousands of veterans, neither North nor South, made him practically unbeatable.

Alas for him, the scandals of the Grant administration, along with the violence created by a heavy-booted Reconstruction policy, turned the tables and did the unthinkable: nearly elected a Democrat – the party many claimed had caused the Civil War. Fortunately for the political powers that were and still wanted to be, they could nitpick a few electoral votes (which indeed had produced a few elements of viable corruption) into Republican victories and swing the election.

Hayes himself was a decent sort.  He assiduously remained above the fray, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the disputatious electors, preferring to keep his image of “squeaky clean.” The Republican politicians won out. Hayes was elected.

The Dry Decision

At the time the Hayeses were in the White House, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had grown into a huge moral lobby with major political implications. Neither Hayes nor his wife had actually joined the organization, nor would they ever.

Perhaps because of the scandals and suspicions surrounding the election, plus the polarizing Reconstruction issues facing them, banning spirits in the White House must have seemed like a good idea for a diffusing red herring. After all, who could find fault with people who opposed drunkenness? The new First Couple were unassailably righteous. And dry. But whose decision was it?

pres rud and lucy

President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes were a conventional and morally upright First Couple.

Lucy Hayes usually gets the blame or credit, depending on your point of view. The moniker “Lemonade Lucy” was given to her during their administration, and she reportedly wasn’t happy about it. By her own admission in letters and diaries, she considered herself a shy woman, and while personally temperate, she insisted that she did not wish to tell other people what to do. She claimed that if someone wanted a glass of brandy or champagne, it was not her concern. Besides, she claimed to be in favor of temperance, not abstinence.

Nevertheless the morally upright women of the WCTU commandeered her as their heroine, singing her praises to all who would listen. They wrote stories about her in their newspapers, commissioned her portrait, and refused to be swayed by the fact that she still declined to formally join their ranks.

The Laced Oranges

One of the elaborate and lavish pieces of dinnerware that Mrs. Hayes commissioned for the Hayes White House. The oranges created more excitement, however.

Making the White House bone dry may have been honorable, but it was not a popular call amongst Washington politicos who enjoyed their casual vices of fellowship. Perhaps it was Hayes himself who issued the dictum. Perhaps Hayes enlisted Mrs. Hayes to take the heat, since chivalry was still in flower, and nobody would dare criticize the First Lady for her unimpeachable virtue. They might poke a little fun, but they would not be rude.

The upshot was that there was no booze of any kind, not even wine or champagne, for four years. The White House social scene between 1877-1881 was always gracious and occasionally lavish, but very dull.

The story goes that a large bowl of oranges was always placed in the gentlemens cloakroom of the White House prior to a social occasion. They went like hotcakes. It became a popular congregating place for the politicians since (the story continues) the oranges were laced with rum.  Ha ha.

Then, of course, there was the conflicting story that yes, there were “laced” oranges, but it was only “rum flavoring.” Ha ha HA.

Historians have pondered over this for more than a century and they are still as divided about it as they are about the election of 1876.

We will probably never know for sure.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1999
  • Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
  • Geer, Emily Apt – First Lady: The Life of Lucy Webb Hayes, Kent State University Press, 1984
  • Whitney, David C. – The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives from Washington through Clinton, The Readers Digest Association, Inc., 1996


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