Grace Coolidge at the Confluence

Grace Coolidge

No one could have been more surprised by the 1920 Republican convention than Grace Goodhue Coolidge.

The Beginning of Fame

The nomination of Warren G. Harding was a surprise to the country. Choosing a Vice Presidential candidate was an afterthought. It was still considered an honorable, but generally toothless position of little consequence other than mildly ceremonial.

Calvin Coolidge

The story goes, that when Calvin Coolidge told his wife that he was being nominated for Vice President, she was amazed, and said, “Well you’re not going to accept, are you?” He replied, “I think I have to.”

The Politics of Grace

Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957) was a traditional late Victorian woman. Nevertheless, she had  a solid college education (University of Vermont), learned sign language and became a teacher of the deaf before becoming Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1905. Tradition dictated that a married woman did not work outside the home.

The nuclear Coolidge family.

So Bride Coolidge stayed home, had two sons in short order, and became the quintessential New England wife and mother. She cooked and baked (not very well), sewed and knitted (better), and became active in their church and local charitable organizations. Her husband liked it that way; she did not seem to mind. As the quintessential Victorian New England male, he believed that politics and indeed all business, was a man’s business.

As Coolidge’s modest legal practice was augmented by his modest entry into local and state politics, Grace played little if any part. When he decided to run for higher office, she was usually the last to know. His thinking could be summed up as: Her job wasn’t changing, his was, so what was the point?

But as the 19-teens changed drastically vis-à-vis women (among other things), in some ways, he was the last to know.

In short, Grace had no political opinions.

The Value of Grace

Mrs. Coolidge, housewife.

By the end of World War I, women and their voting powers had become a force to be reckoned with. Coolidge was late aboard, but once it was a fact of life, he accepted it. Many social-political events now included wives at receptions and dinners and fashionable parties. Grace was happy to go, and be among the “voting” citizens, although she had not sought it actively.

Coolidge, as Lt. Governor (and later Governor), was delighted to bring her when feasible. In his own way, he was extremely proud of her. She was good looking and had an outgoing personality. She was a snappy dresser. For all his legendary thrift, Coolidge took an inordinate interest in his wife’s wardrobe, and was free with the checkbook. One story has an exhausted Grace commenting after a day’s unsuccessful shopping with her husband for her clothing, she would have been happy with anything – just to be done with it. But it was he who insisted on her sartorial perfection.

He was amazed however, at how popular his wife was with the political community, both as Mrs. Governor and later as Mrs. VP. Everybody loved her. True, she was pretty and outgoing. True, she had a college education, and was familiar with the latest books and shows and songs. But there was another bonus. Baseball. Grace loved it and was knowledgeable. Hmmm.

The Surprise of Popularity

The Hardings and the Coolidges.

When Coolidge was sworn in as VP in March, 2021, the office was still negligible. The couple took rooms at the Willard Hotel (maintaining their rented half-a-house in Northampton), enrolled their two sons in school, and looked for ways to be useful. It was obvious from the start that the Hardings and the Coolidges were not destined to be close. The story goes that when a house was offered as a permanent home for the Vice President (whoever filled the office), it was FLOTUS Florence Harding who nixed it, commenting that “a hotel was good enough for the Coolidges.”

Other than presiding over the Senate, the VP was given very little to do. Mrs. VP was given nothing to do.

But as a courtesy, they were invited as “guests of honor” to various social activities in DC. So they went. The provincial New Englanders were a huge hit with the uber-sophisticated political crowd. Grace, as usual, fit in easily wherever she was placed. That was no surprise. But “Silent Cal” as he became known, astounded everyone with his a) silence, and b) his unexpected and agonizingly dry-wry sense of humor. He was being widely quoted within a few months. No longer a courtesy, the Coolidges were on everyone’s A-guest list. So they went. “Gotta eat somewhere,” he said.

They also were not required to return invitations that extensively. Periodic large gatherings could suffice. It was easy on their food budget.

Grace Coolidge, housewife, and Grace Coolidge, popular political wife had merged.

Mrs. POTUS and Spouse

The iconic portrait of Coolidge’s oath of office.

If being nominated and elected Vice President was a surprise to the Coolidges, it was a total shock to them, and to the nation, when Harding died suddenly in August 1923. Very few people (including Coolidge) even knew he had been ill.

They had been visiting Coolidge’s father at his rural Vermont farm, as they usually did each summer. It was one o’clock in the morning of August 2, when there was a loud and persistent banging on the door. The elder man investigated and received the incredible news. He went upstairs and advised his son. Calvin and Grace knelt in prayer for a few minutes before they dressed and came downstairs.

By that time a few automobiles were wending their way to the Coolidge farmhouse. In the tiny parlor, surrounded by a handful of people, John Coolidge, a notary public and thus an officer of the court, swore his son in as the 30th President.

Their lives would ever be the same.

Sources:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories From the First Ladies Closet – Koehler Publishing, 2014

Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains

http://http://coolidgefoundation.org/

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Calvin Coolidge, Nifty History People, Warren G. Harding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Madison and the Secret Convention

James Madison has always been designated The Father of the Constitution.

James Madison: A Brief Run-Up

James Madison (1751-1836) was the eldest son of a well-to-do planting family in central Virginia. Slight of stature (between 5’1 and 5’6” depending on your source), he was very large in intellect.

An early image of James Madison

His parents sent him to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), where he not only earned a classical degree, but he continued his education, earning an equivalent of a masters’ degree in today’s political science. Most historians rank him as the best educated of our Founding Fathers.

After serving in local capacities during the Revolutionary War, Madison was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and subsequently named to the Virginia governor’s Council of State where he became acquainted with Thomas Jefferson, a foot taller, and an equal in intellectual excellence. Their friendship was for life, and their thinking became one of the great political partnerships of all times. Madison remained in the Virginia State Legislature for several years.

Thomas Jefferson, mentor and lifelong friend.

By the time ex-Governor Jefferson was sent to France as a diplomatic envoy of the new United States, the Articles of Confederation that had been adopted by the thirteen erstwhile British Colonies, had begun to fray in many ways. Legislator and delegate Madison was hugely instrumental in providing the historical and scholarly analyses to determine the whys and wherefores of the Articles’ flaws.

By 1786, Madison was corresponding regularly with Jefferson in Paris, along with dozens of other legislative and judicial minds throughout the new States. Most of his fellow-correspondents agreed that the Articles required serious amendments. Some (Alexander Hamilton, in particular) believed they should be scrapped entirely, and a new constitution written.

The Great Convention

The Constitutional Convention began in 1787, and it was not at all great, nor was it well planned. Circular letters were sent throughout the states, urging representatives be sent to Philadelphia to consider amendments to the Articles of Confederation. No thought had been suggested that a brand new governing constitution might be needed; merely amending the obvious flaws in the Articles.

Only seven states were represented when the talks began, but it was a quorum. Transportation was slow. Other state representatives dribbled in on succeeding days.

George Washington

It began by debating draft rules for the convention itself, with substantial authority placed in George Washington, unanimously chosen as President of the Convention and perhaps the only man in the country who commanded unanimous respect. His presence guaranteed that the meetings would be taken most seriously.

New Country, New Rules

Perhaps the most important rules were the ones suggested from the floor, a deviation from normal parliamentary procedure.

Rufus King

Rufus King of Massachusetts suggested that the convention refrain from recording the votes of individual members. He believed it would inhibit them from speaking their minds, or even playing devil’s advocate. It also allowed delegates the freedom to change their minds if they saw fit.

Another deviation from the usual, came from Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina, who urged that any member be allowed to request the Convention to revisit matters previously decided.

Pierce Butler of SC

But perhaps the most important new idea came from Pierce Butler of South Carolina, who moved that the Convention’s proceedings be kept secret. The Convention agreed that “no copy be taken of any entry on the journal,” and that nothing discussed in the meetings “be printed, or otherwise published, or communicated without leave.”

Thus centuries before journalists, commentators and self-styled “talking head” experts weighed in willy-nilly on practically everything, making it nearly impossible for consensus building, the Convention chose to be a secret one. Sort of an 18th century view of loose lips sinking ships. And that included ships of State.

George Washington scrupulously adhered to the secrecy rule. Early on, and only once did he communicate to his diary that the Convention had dictated no communications without doors (outside the meeting room).

James Madison was one of the strongest supporters of the rule of secrecy, writing to Jefferson in Paris that he believed the rule was thought expedient in order to secure unbiased discussion within doors, and to prevent misconceptions and misconstruction without…

James Monroe

Madison reiterated this view to James Monroe. “I think the rule was a prudent one not only as it will effectually secure the requisite freedom of discussion, but as it will save both the Convention and the Community from a thousand erroneous and perhaps mischievous reports.”

Fifty Years Later

Elder Statesman James Madison

James Madison had kept copious notes of the Constitutional Convention, including all the who-said-whats. But true to his oath of secrecy, and other than in personal conversation with trusted parties, his diaries remained private. But he was the last survivor of the convention, and believed those diaries to be an important gift to the Country. It took some 600 pages to revise and rework them.

By that time, Madison was nearly 85 years old. Always small in size, he was now withered. His eyesight was failing from cataracts. He had a palsy, making it impossible for him to handle a quill pen. Much of the annotated manuscript was in his wife’s handwriting.

According to James Madison, many years later, “No Constitution ever would have been adopted by the Convention if the debates had been public.”

Fifty years is a long time, and much had occurred in the interim, including the way people age and recollect things. Modern historians sometimes tend to judge the past by present-day mores, culture, and politics, and nitpick their imperfections, often, as the saying goes, “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” James Madison, like all our Founding Fathers – and even those of later years – were human, and thus imperfect. They could only work with the tools at hand. Madison was among the best we had, and for more than 200 years, it (and he) has served us well.

Sources:

Brookheiser, Richard – James Madison – Basic Books, 2011

Labunski, Richard – James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights – Oxford University Press, 2006

Larson, Edward J. – The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789 – William Morrow, 2015

https://blog.consource.org/post/87198940335/the-constitutional-convention-the-rule-of-secrecy

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Nifty History People, Thomas Jefferson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

James Knox Polk’s Delicate Operation

polk

11th President James Knox Polk

In the early 19th century, any surgery was always dangerous.

Young Polk

Recreatedbirthplace jkp

A recreated log cabin in NC suggesting Polk’s birthplace.

Born in 1795 in North Carolina, James Knox Polk was the oldest of ten children born to a middle-class North Carolina family. They moved to Tennessee when Polk was ten.

Always considered a frail boy, he was one of our shortest Presidents (perhaps 5’6”), and like James Madison, he was also slight. Perhaps 130 lbs. max.

polk house nashville

A residence of the Polks in Columbia, TN

Partly because of his frail health, and partly because of their remote location, he learned his educational basics at home. He would not have any formal education until his late teens.

Dr. Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830)

A commemorative postage stamp in 1959 for McDowell!

Nevertheless, while young-man Polk seemed bright enough, and had become accustomed to the rigors of “frontier” living, he seemed lethargic and incapable of hard physical labor. His academic prowess was mediocre at best. He began complaining of vague on-and-off pains by the time he was eleven, and a regular education was impossible. In 1812, at age seventeen, his pains had worsened seriously, and his father planned to take him back to North Carolina for better care than he could receive in rural Tennessee. En route, young Polk’s agony had become so severe, that his father detoured to Danville, KY to be treated by Ephraim McDowell, an early pioneer of ovarian surgery, and considered one of the finest physicians in the area.

According to sources of that time, Dr. McDowell diagnosed Polk with gallstones, and insisted upon an immediate operation. The problem was…

Most modern physicians believe it was a bladder stone, not a gallstone. The symptoms were totally different; the type of pain was totally different; and the residual after effects were totally different. Impotence or sterility was practically a certainty, likely due to scarring from the rapid perineal dissection. And of course, the surgery itself is totally different.

For more than a hundred years, most history books that mentioned Polk’s health noted that he had gallstones. Not so.

Bladder Stones

Bladder stones are nothing new. There have been instances recorded as far back as the Egyptians. Hippocrates even mentioned them in the 4th century BC. According to Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, while some stones can be relatively asymptomatic, more likely they are excruciatingly painful, and if not treated, can prove fatal, destroying the kidneys, possibly bursting the bladder, and unquestionably causing infection.

While they are rarer than kidney stones, bladder stones are more prevalent among men. They usually arise from crystallized minerals in concentrated urine. They are most common among older men, particularly when blockage from an enlarged prostate gland causes problems. 

What is extremely rare however, in Polk’s time as well as in modern time, is a bladder stone in children.

A bladder stone (if it doesn’t pass naturally by itself), must either be removed completely, or far more common today, by dissolving or breaking it in a way as to let the smaller particles be passed naturally. Today, non-invasive ultra sound procedures have become routine. In 1812, such measures were unknown.

This cystolithotomy (the formal medical terminology) likely required that the boy be secured for surgery by leather straps and a couple of strong assistants.  

Polk’s Problem

Young James Knox Polk definitely had a serious problem. It was 1812, and medical procedures, diagnosis and treatments were still in relatively primitive states. While Dr. McDowell may have mis-phrased the type of stone it was, he likely knew where it was. He also knew that the young man required immediate surgery, otherwise the consequences could be fatal.

The young man also had a secondary problem. Anesthesia would not be discovered for another three decades. Surgery of any kind, requiring sharp, pointed knives cutting into delicate tissue, is excruciating. Doctors provided strong whiskey or brandy to possibly dull some of the pain. Maybe. If the patient was lucky, he would faint. It is interesting to note that as an adult, Polk never touched spirits of any kind.

Then, of course, there was the mortifying procedure itself. The patient, naked from the waist down, was positioned on his knees, and firmly strapped down so the doctor (who obviously could not see the stone) could insert his finger or instrument in the rectum to “feel for the stone” and determine its relative size and position. Some practitioners then inserted a nail through the penis and urethra, and tapped it with a hammer to shatter the stone. There would be few other choices for more than a century – except for the use of anesthesia, which was a godsend. Dr. Fitzharris’ excellent website offers wonderful detailed drawings!

But it worked…

James and Sarah Polk

After his surgery, recovery and rest, the formerly ill Polk was able to focus on his education for the first time. He was obviously bright and capable, since he entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. At his graduation in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class, and considered a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics. Then he returned to Tennessee, studied law and eventually opened up his own practice, and could claim Andrew Jackson as one of his mentors.

Polk got a stamp, too!

Polk obvious went on to a substantive career, not only in law, but in politics. He served for seven terms as a Congressman, including four years as Speaker of the House – the only President who could list “Speaker of the House” on his resume.

But notable career notwithstanding, although Polk married when he was 28, he had no children. Most modern physicians conclude that the cystolithotomy indeed left him sterile.

Sources:

Fitzharris, Dr. Lindsey  – http://www.drlindseyfitzharris.com

Ikard, Robert W. – Surgical Operation on James K. Polk by Ephraim McDowell or the Search for Polk’s Gallstone – Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Summer 1984

Sellers, Charles – James K. Polk: Jacksonian – Easton Press (reprint) – 1987

http://www.jstor.org/stable/42626441

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John Wilkes Booth: Heartthrob and Assassin

In April 1865, John Wilkes Booth was 26 years old.

JWB: The Solid Theatrical Pedigree

Edwin Booth, legendary actor

In a day when theatrical personages were still looked on askance, the Booths of Maryland had a fine and well regarded pedigree. Junius Brutus Booth was one of the foremost Shakespearean tragedians of his day. His sons Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr., were established in theatrical hierarchy by the Civil War. All had been headliners all up and down the East Coast, and even points inland. A third up-and-coming son, John Wilkes, was the best looking, most athletic, and flashiest of all them.

John Wilkes, the youngest Booth actor

John Wilkes Booth (1838-65) began his career practically from birth, learning his craft from family members, and blessed with the invaluable ability to learn and remember lines easily. By the time he was out of his teens, he was already performing, and displaying his athletic prowess with daredevil leaps and onstage acrobatics. He had become a fine swordsman (mandatory for an actor), an excellent horseman and crack shot. His solid build, curly black hair and graceful manners stood him well, as did his exceptionally good looks, snappy clothing and suave way with the ladies.

He also made a lot of money. In the year before the assassination, he made nearly $20,000. The President only made $25,000.

In short, he was a rock star.

JWB: Personal Magnetism

Lucy Lambert Hale, said to be Booth’s fiancee.

Booth’s personal charm was becoming legendary. Women were falling in love with him. Several had his photographs or cartes d’visite tucked away with their most private possessions. He carried the photographs of several belles of the ‘60s in his private day-diary. He was said to be engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of a Senator. He also was keeping (unbeknownst to Lucy) a long-time mistress.

Interestingly enough, for such an obvious ladies’ man, JWB was popular with men, too. They liked him. His fellow thespians liked him, finding mild fault only with the failings of his youth: grandstanding and lack of craft-discipline. And a wee bit too much brandy. But there was definite talent, and he was expected to gain wisdom with age. He had friends high and low. John Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theatre, was a close friend. So were stage hands, stable hands, and assorted riffs and raffs. Bartenders loved him both for his regularity at the bar, and his generosity. He bought rounds.

JWB: The Assassin Part

Most assassins or attempted assassins of major political figures are viewed as a) certifiably insane (Charles Guiteau/Garfield) or John Schenk/Theodore Roosevelt); b) loners and “strange birds” (Lee Harvey Oswald/JFK or the Manson followers/Gerald Ford), and occasionally politically motivated anarchists (Leon Czolgosz/McKinley or Gavrilo Princip/Archduke Franz Ferdinand). In modern times, some are for hire.

John Wilkes Booth doesn’t quite fit those molds. True, he was politically motivated, being an ardent Confederate and Lincoln loather, but that could be said of most of the Confederate leadership. But JWB was definitely not insane, nor an anarchist nor a loner. Nobody was paying him. He was already famous – and financially comfortable.

A Fanatical Precipice

One of JWB’s cartes d’visite.

JWB was present at Brown’s hanging.

There is evidence that John Wilkes Booth was present, wearing a militia uniform, at the hanging of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown was a fanatic to some, hero to others, who believed not only in immediately abolition, but by any means possible.

Where, how, and for how long JWB obtained and wore the militia uniform is immaterial (to this discussion), suffice to say he never saw fit to join the Confederate Army. He was known to harbor more surreptitious thoughts. But that came a little later.

The Booth family, long time border-state Marylanders, were all pro-Union and pro-Lincoln. If any had Southern sympathies, they were mild. Many families have political variables.

The object of Booth’s kidnap plan.

Booth’s political rage seems to have become overt in 1864, not long after Ulysses S. Grant became General of the Union Army, and the heavy casualties now became intolerable. Realizing that the Union had at least twice the manpower resources as the Confederacy, as a military measure, Grant refused to exchange prisoners, a centuries old tradition. This meant that the South could not replace its losses, and the perceived war of attrition, was now an absolute.

General U.S. Grant

Booth’s idea was to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom – possibly for all the Confederate prisoners-of-war. This, of course, was a complex plot that entailed many people on many fronts; problems of where, when, how – and who could be trusted.

JWB originally contacted some old childhood friends  but while they were happy listen to his wild proposals, they did not buy-in. But Booth had mastered the importance of networking: one person leads to another ….and another. Finally he assembled a somewhat half-baked group of sycophants, who were happy to bask in the Booth limelight, and drink his brandy. With the exception of strong man Lewis Powell, who frankly admitted to being “mad,” none of them were assassins.

Only Booth.

Change of Plans

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office for his second term. Despite bad weather, there was a large crowd. With a ticket supplied by his maybe-fiancee Lucy Hale, John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd and admitted how easy it would have been to shoot the President then and there. But he didn’t. He was still fixed on the kidnap plan.

A month later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant, ostensibly ending the four-year-war. Washington, breathing a collective sigh of relief, was jubilant, with bunting and bands and fireworks.

Lincoln was asked to say a few words, which he did, alluding briefly to some plans for reconstructing the Union. Booth was in the crowd, and was said to have muttered, “That will be the last speech he will ever make.”

It was.

Sources:

Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington – NYRB Classics – 2011

Swanson, James L – Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer – William Morrow, 2006

https://www.nps.gov/people/john-wilkes-booth.htm

https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-second-inaugural.htm

Grant Suspends Prisoner Exchange

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William Howard Taft: Illness in The Philippines

After the War With Spain, the remnants of its empire fell into our hands.

The USA as an Empire

By and large, most people in the United States were extremely lukewarm about inheriting Spanish colonies following the mercifully short Spanish American War. High on that list was President William McKinley.

It was definitely true that the concept of Manifest Destiny, i.e. “from sea to shining sea” was part of our agenda, but the thought of overseas territories and islands was practically distasteful. They would be difficult/expensive to manage. The inhabitants of said places were none too keen on it either. And, perhaps most importantly, the overwhelming ethos of America was freedom and liberty. We truly had no desire to “rule” anybody.

The Philippines

The crown jewel of Spain’s Pacific Empire was the Philippines – an atoll of hundreds of small islands, thousands of miles away. It had been a Spanish possession for nearly 400 years. The natives, divided by islands and sub-cultures, were fractious among themselves. They were always antagonistic to their Spanish rulers, who ruled with an iron hand. The Catholic Church, tied integrally to Spain, provided comfort to some and fear and repression to others. Uprisings were frequent, and seldom solved anything. As our new “inheritance,” we naturally sent in the army to maintain order. They were heavy handed too, and unpopular.

If civil unrest was not enough of a headache, tropical islands have been eternally notorious for their “rare tropical diseases.” In 1900, while microbiology was becoming a scientific discipline of its own, it was still in early stages. Bacteria, microbes, amoebic organisms, along with malaria, typhoid, typhus and various fevers were common – and very hard to treat. Some illnesses were extremely elusive to diagnose – and still are. Death was more than likely.

President William McKinley, a kindly man by nature, and as reluctant to rule as he was to fight war itself, sent a commission – to investigate root causes and concerns and make recommendations to rectify whatever was possible.

Taft and Family

Judge William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was an Ohio Republican of impeccable and long pedigree. McKinley appointed him to lead the commission in early 1900.

Malacanang Palace where the Tafts lived.

It was a visible and important position, and Taft brought the family: his wife Helen Herron, always called Nellie, and their three young children. In short order, Will Taft proved his judicial mindedness, and not long thereafter, the commission fulfilled its purpose and was disbanded. Taft was appointed Governor General. He was fair minded, accessible, a well-balanced listener, and immensely popular.

The Tafts entertained ecumenically.

While many Americans in the Philippines viewed the locals as racially inferior, Taft proposed to banish this idea from their minds. Racial segregation was never a part of any Taft official events, and Filipinos were treated as social equals. In her memoirs, Nellie Taft recalled that “neither politics nor race should influence our hospitality in any way.”

Both Tafts ardently supported education in the Philippines.

Nellie Taft dressed for a costume party in the Philippines.

Both Will and Nellie Taft had many opportunities to indulge in their love for adventure – the more exotic, the better. Long skirts and corsets notwithstanding, Nellie rode the waves in war canoes, and made an excursion on muleback through the Philippine jungles. Not to be outdone, in the summer of 1901, Governor Will made an excursion through the Luzon jungles as well.

The Hidden Illness Part

Taft – on a water buffalo.

William Howard Taft was a large fellow, over 300 pounds. The tropical Philippines has temperatures regularly soaring above 100 degrees. Prickly heat is a common skin condition closely associated with heat and skin rubbing itself into a rash. Children get it regularly. So do adults, especially those with excess flesh.

According to Will himself, the excursion through the jungles left him with a nasty prickly heat rash, exacerbated when some of the fistulas erupted leaving open areas susceptible to infection. The infection began as a mild skin irritation, but after a week, it had increased to a serious problem requiring immediate medical treatment.

Will was definitely ill. He had developed a fever and severe abdominal pains. On October 27, a rectal abscess ruptured, and he was taken to the hospital on a stretcher for an emergency operation. The surgeons found an abscess in the perineum. The doctors had to dig deep, and were apprehensive about gangrene. Ether was used as an anesthetic, and Taft later wrote about the acute thirst it caused – and the odd dreams he had. He also recalled a “spider web of pus-filled ducts and pockets undermining the skin.”

But the wound seemed to heal, although bedrest for a month was prescribed – and enforced.

Come, Dear

Meanwhile, in early October, 1901, with no apparent danger in her husband’s health, Nellie had set out on a solo trip to China, to recharge her own energies. She no sooner arrived at her hotel in Shanghai, when she received a very short telegram. “Come dear, am sick.” Of course she immediately booked passage on the next ship back. When Nellie returned to Manila, she never left his side.

Despite showing improvement, Taft was very weak, and there were still some residual pus pockets surrounding the rectum. A second surgery was performed on Thanksgiving day. This time, the doctors insisted that the Taft family return to Cincinnati to recuperate.

They booked passage back to the US on Christmas Eve, once they had assurance from the doctors that he was well enough to travel.

But Taft was still not well, and by March, 1902, a third surgery was done in Cincinnati, this time performed by Dr. Hiller Rauschoff and Dr. Frederick Forchheimer, both of whom were well known to the Taft family.

It was not until August, 1902 that they were able to return to the Philippines.

Sources:

https://doctorzebra.com/prez/z_x27abscess_g.htm

Lurie, Jonathan  – William Howard Taft: Progressive Conservative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Marx, Rudolph. The Health of the Presidents. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1960.

Ross, Ishbel. An American Family: The Tafts – 1678 to 1964. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1964.

Taft, Mrs. William Howard – Recollections of a Full Life – Dodd, Mead, 1914

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People, William Howard Taft, William McKinley | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John and Abigail Adams: The Decision of ‘78

John and Abigail Adams always had a very close relationship…

The Early Years

From the time of their marriage in October, 1764, John and Abigail Adams were seldom apart for more than a few days. But as political turmoil began to dominate Great Britain’s colonies in America, particularly in Massachusetts, John Adams (1735-1826) emerged as a leader of a fledgling independence movement. His astute wife Abigail (1744-1818), always her husband’s confidante, was like minded.

John Adams in his early 40s.

Thus when John was elected to represent the Colony at a Continental Congress in 1774, John and Abigail knew they would be separated for far more than a few days. Philadelphia, America’s largest city and the seat of that Congress was a journey of two weeks, with its own perils and dangers. Once John reached Philadelphia, he would have little opportunity to return to Boston. The unrest that had erupted in 1775 had turned into actual armed warfare.

Nevertheless, the couple were able to communicate, and their frequent letters became the core of what would become four generations of Adams’ treasure trove of history.

In January, 1778, John returned home with momentous news. He had been elected by Congress to join Benjamin Franklin in Paris as a diplomatic representative to seek official “recognition” and alliance, i.e. military and financial aid.

Abigail Adams in her thirties.

If Philadelphia was a two week overland journey, the distance to Paris was six-weeks (possibly more), across a wide ocean. There was more than just the danger of a long ocean voyage with assorted perils of nature and vessel. France was England’s bitter enemy throughout centuries of warfare. A man of Adams’ growing stature would be a prize for Great Britain. His capture, or even death, was not farfetched. And the likelihood they would be reunited anytime soon was remote. Even an exchange of letters, something they both treasured, was hugely difficult.

Ships that carried correspondence across the Atlantic were often few and far between, especially since America and Great Britain were at war. If a ship were captured, letters were opened, its contents either informative or ridiculed, were tossed overboard.

And if, by chance, the letter reached the foreign shore, a trustworthy party had to be found going in the general direction. Several hands might be needed before the letter reached its intended recipient. A letter from John might first reach Charleston, and passed to a party going to Richmond, and then to Philadelphia or New York before finally reaching Abigail in Boston.

Abigail and John considered bringing the whole family to Paris.

But after more thoughtful consideration, they believed it would be best for Abigail to remain home with the children – after all, their youngest was only five. The voyage promised to be long, arduous and very very dangerous. And the cost of the entire family living abroad would be prohibitive. The Adamses were not wealthy.

Johnny

Young John Quincy Adams, about ten.

Nevertheless, after more discussions, they made a momentous decision – together. John would take their ten-year-old son John Quincy with him.

It was fraught with peril. The likelihood that Adams might be captured, imprisoned – or worse, was a legitimate concern. What would happen to their son? Who would care for him? Ten years old is still a little boy.

But JQ, as he began to refer to himself, was a precocious fellow, not only in scholarship, but in the strong desire to learn. He had been home schooled since earliest childhood, with some extra tutoring in Latin by John Thaxter, his father’s law clerk. Even brainy Abigail could only do so much, and their son deserved the very best. JQ was torn as well, but he wanted to go.

Neither John nor Abigail had traveled much, and they had never been abroad. But they had heard about European depredation and vice of every sort and were deeply concerned, lest their most promising offspring might fall prey to temptation.

John and Abigail Adams were always affectionate parents, but they were also Puritans, only a generation or so removed from the fire-and-brimstone preachers who believed in witchcraft. Along with their parental duties to care for and educate their children, Abigail (in particular), believed it to be her sacred obligation to keep a close watch on the children’s moral behavior. The straight and narrow, and all it entailed, was permanently etched into her soul. With all his duties, John could not be everywhere; who would watch over the young lad and protect him from vice – and possibly, from himself?

In the end, “duty” prevailed over all else. Duty  to their fledgling country that selected John Adams as its envoy, duty to each other, although their mutual devotion was never in question, and duty to their brilliant son, who deserved the best education they could provide. And duty to God, in whom they would put their trust.

The Parting

 John Adams and his young son had made their plans and packed whatever was needed – which included their own food. (There would be a cook aboard to prepare meals, but food and beverages were not provided.) Their plans needed to be the utmost secret. They were important personages and a great prize to the British.

They had arranged for the frigate Boston to be anchored in Quincy Bay, nearer their home in Braintree, about ten miles from Boston, out of sight and and less conspicuous to British troops.

Not knowing when or if they would see each other again, they said their goodbyes. And an early hour on February 12, 1778 a short, stocky man, his manservant, and a young boy, carrying their personal belongings, shivered in the cold and walked a mile by themselves to the edge of the river. Sailors manning a barge were stationed to meet them at the shore, to take them to their destinies. 

Sources:

Butterfield, L.H. et al, (editors) Adams Family Correspondence, 1761-97

Ellis, Joseph J. – Passionate Sage – W.W. Norton Co., 1993

McCullough, David – John Adams – Simon & Schuster, 2001

Nagel, Paul C. – Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family – Oxfvord University Press – 1983

Shepard, Jack – The Adams Chronicles – Little Brown, 1977

 

 

 

 

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Theodore Roosevelt and the Judge: 1904

Theodore Roosevelt ran for President in 1904…

The Big Surprise

…but the big surprise was that he was already President.

He had planned to run for POTUS in ’04 some years back. He may have dreamed about running in ’04 a dozen years earlier when he was too young for the position. But the ’04 year was definitely on his youthful agenda.

Garret Hobart, deceased

Meanwhile, as surprises go, with “many a slip,” TR was coerced into the Vice Presidential spot in 1900, following the sudden death of William McKinley’s Vice President Garret Hobart several months earlier. McKinley and Hobart had gotten on extremely well, and had he lived, Hobart would surely have been on the ticket again.

In addition, following the mercifully short War with Spain in 1898, TR, the Colonel of the now legendary Rough Riders, a volunteer unit, had become a national hero. Barely 40, he was elected (with trepidation) as NY’s Republican Governor. The trepidation was real: TR was a bully fellow, but not one to be bullied. The political bosses of NY, while they liked him personally, knew he was a maverick and a political pain. They found the perfect solution: kick him upstairs to a then-toothless role as VPOTUS, and he would be out of everyone’s way.

So he was nominated, and they won. McKinley was very popular, too. Except with Leon Czolgosz, an out-of-work laborer and anarchist, who pumped a couple of bullets into his chest. A week later, Theodore Roosevelt, just 42, was now President.

The Popular TR

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the perfect president for the new century: young, ebullient, and with tremendous personal appeal. He also had a gift for publicity, and enjoyed and welcomed journalists. He was always newsworthy, and his young family helped provide the up-front-and-personals for the papers.

Now there was no question who would be the ‘o4 Republican nominee. He was the FIRST “accidental” VP-turned-POTUS” to be nominated for a term of his own. (Four previous holders of that position had all been denied: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur).

The big problem was who would be the Democratic candidate. Nobody wanted to run.

The Bryan Spoiler

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was two years younger than TR, and had already run for President TWICE. He lost heavily each time. Now, at only 44, he was at a prime age to try again. His loyal supporters loved him and his populist platform, which leaned heavily toward easing “social” farm and labor conditions, as opposed to the conventional “business-as-usual” interests. In 1904, easing social conditions was a) newfangled, revolutionary and suspect, and b) still in its infancy with only Bryan holding the reins. The conservative Democrats, like Grover Cleveland, were very wary.

WJB was a spellbinder of reasonable, but somewhat narrow and pious thinking. An attorney by discipline, he had relinquished the law early on to devote himself to journalism and politics. And oratory, at which he excelled. Young and aggressive like TR, he had barnstormed the country in both 1896 and 1900 on behalf of his candidacy.

By ’04, Bryan had become a very shrewd politician, and immediately realized that running against the popular and progressive Theodore Roosevelt, who, with his “Square Deal,” favored social issues himself, was a no-win situation. Bryan did not wish to be a loser – again. But he did wish to be the kingmaker. Only he also knew there would no king to make. It was a loser year. The Democrats knew this, too.

Enter Alton Parker

Judge Alton Parker

Poor Judge Alton Parker (1852-1926) is a name long lost to history. A New Yorker like TR, Parker was from upstate, and had been an accomplished attorney and jurist. His career was honorable, but unremarkable. Nevertheless, he was considered a fair, honest and competent judge. He supported mild social reform, and had been an ardent campaigner for Grover Cleveland.

William Randolph Hearst

There was yet another New Yorker who hoped for the Democratic nod in ’04: William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Hearst was a flamboyant gazillionaire newspaper publisher, who gained notoriety for his lurid stories of sex, corruption, crime and innuendo in order to sell papers. But Bryan disliked him, and threw all his support to anybody else. Hearst had no lack of enemies, so his efforts were going nowhere.

With little talent to choose from, the Democrats chose Judge Parker, nice, but generally reluctant and uninspiring, as their “unifying” standard bearer. President Roosevelt, an extremely savvy politician, commented that Parker’s neutrality might be to his advantage, writing that “the neutral-tinted individual is very apt to win against the man of pronounced views and active life”.

The High Road

The way Puck Magazine saw it…

The Presidential Campaign of 1904 was, as predicted, a walk in the park triumph for Theodore Roosevelt. Parker was a poor campaigner, lacking in the type of pizazz needed to take on the pizazzy TR. His campaign was poorly run, poorly managed and poorly financed. Opting for a front-porch model, a la McKinley, Parker’s front porch was in the middle of remote, and few delegates or visitors came.

The “free silver” (inflationary) coinage issue that had propelled Bryan to fame a decade earlier had run its course by ’04, and the convention did not include it in the platform, to Bryan’s annoyance – and the business interests’ relief. When Judge Parker learned of this, he sent a telegram to the convention to the effect that he considered the gold standard “firmly and irrevocably established” and would decline the nomination if he could not state that in his campaign. In private, TR praised Parker’s telegram as bold, skillful and adroit.

Nevertheless, when Parker chose to go on the attack, as it were, it was too little, too late, too personal, and it fizzled. And TR was presidential, and ever the gentleman toward the Judge.

TR romped to victory in ’04, winning by more than 2 million votes, with Parker only carrying the Solid South.

To this day, there is still no biography about Judge Parker.

Sources:

Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House

Sullivan, Mark – Our Times (Vol. II): America Finding Herself – Charles Scribner’s Sons – 1927

Time-Life Books (Editors) – This Fabulous Century: 1900-1910 – Time-Life Books, 1969

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/theodore-roosevelt/

 

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Grover Cleveland: The Media Loathe-Affair

The press never disliked Grover Cleveland…but

The Beginning of Loathe

…Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), prior to, during, and after his presidency, positively loathed the “ghouls of the press” as he called them.

A very conservative Democrat, Cleveland was urged by citizens of both parties to run for Mayor of Buffalo, the second largest city in NY, full of corruption. He ran, won and did a fine job. He cleaned up a pile of political shenanigans and waste, and by 1882, was elected Governor of NY. He promptly did for the State what he had done for Buffalo, and was considered incorruptible, honest and tireless, i.e. a viable Presidential candidate in 1884.

Young Grover Cleveland

For nearly a quarter century (with the exception of Andrew Johnson’s disastrous term), Republicans had held the Presidency, despite some squeaker elections. But “almost” doesn’t count; only the bottom line counts. But 1884 saw the Democrats chances looking favorable, and GC, conservative and business-minded, seemed like a winner.

Grover Cleveland was a bachelor, and in his entire adult life, had never been linked romantically. He preferred a manly social life, playing cards with the fellows at the fire house, beer at the saloon, fishing and duck hunting. Et cetera. So it was a total shock to the country when a small local newspaper printed a story about candidate Grover Cleveland fathering an out-of-wedlock child. It had been a decade or more earlier. Other newspapers picked up the story, investigated, and the Victorian press and pulpits made hay with it.

Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?

Most people expected “Grover the Good” to deny such calumny, but he told his aide “tell the truth.” The truth was that he had had a casual liaison with Maria Halpin years earlier, and a child was born. Whether the child was his was undeterminable at that time, but he had acknowledged the situation.

Grover Cleveland, generally gruff and grumpy, never denied the affair, documented his financial responsibilities, and, when the mother proved “unfit,” arranged for proper foster care. That seemed to be enough for the general public. But like the current President at the time (Chester A. Arthur) who famously said, “My private life is nobody’s damn business,” Grover Cleveland was very much annoyed at the invasion of his personal life. It had nothing to do with his ability to administer high public office.

The public agreed by electing him President in 1884.

The Middle of Loathe

New bride Frances Cleveland

By the time of his election, 48-year-old Cleveland had been secretly engaged to Miss Frances Folsom, aged 20. She was the daughter of his former law partner and close friend who had died when his daughter was eleven. “Uncle Cleve” had become executor of the Folsom estate, and the legal guardian of Frances. By the time GC was inaugurated, Frances had finished her education at Wells College, and she and her mother spent a year in Europe, sightseeing and shopping for a trousseau.

GC’s new house.

Very shortly before the Folsom women returned, the press got wind of a mega story-in-situ. The POTUS had just closed on a house in Georgetown! House sales are public knowledge and the records are available. The Presidency comes with a very nice house as part of the deal – and Grover Cleveland had never owned a house before.  Aha!

Around 50 people attended the wedding.

So the chase began. Intrepid journalists (and in the 1880s, the “media” was strictly journalism) scrounged for whatever they could find about the house, the potential “bride,” any wedding plans, etc. When they determined that the bride-to-be was young and pretty, there was no stopping the so-called intrusion into the President’s privacy.

The tight-lipped Cleveland managed the entire ceremony himself, vis-à-vis planning, guests, supper and honeymoon. All Frances and her mother had to do was show up – with gowns. The press was barred from the White House wedding, and the windows were blackened. When the newlyweds left for their honeymoon, they “escaped” through a side entrance, to a train waiting a mile down on the track.

The reporters were undaunted. They chartered a separate locomotive to “follow that train!” and they camped out at the resort GC had selected for the nuptial trip. That included climbing trees, using binoculars and bribing waiters. Pretty Frances was big news, and there was nothing the POTUS could do about it – except stew. And complain bitterly about the intrusive “ghouls of the press” wherever he could. The newspaper publishers didn’t care.

The papers didn’t dislike him – but they positively adored his young bride. She sold papers.

The Final Loathe

Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms. His second term (1893-7) was less successful. The country was beset by economic woes, civil disruption and political bickering – as might be expected anytime. Even Frances, now a settled young matron and mother, was not as good copy. Nevertheless, they were enjoying a happy and contented marriage, and all seemed well enough….

Until GC discovered a rough spot in his mouth and Mrs. C. insisted he see the dentist. The dentist was alarmed and called in specialists. The alarm was real. The President had cancer of the jaw, and immediate surgery was necessary. This time the secrecy was imperative. The country was in a severe economic recession and it was vital that the POTUS maintain an “in charge” image to avoid further panic.

No one could see the prosthetic jaw.

His surgery was performed by a team of doctors and dentists on a borrowed yacht in the middle of New York’s East River, and all sworn to secrecy. Even the owner of the yacht knew nothing of the true purpose.

One reporter “guessed” too close, and appropriate steps were taken to discredit such a wild story. But the POTUS believed that the public good far outweighed a journalistic scoop.

The actual truth of Cleveland’s cancer was not made public until several years after the ex-President’s death. Of course there are some today who believe there should be no secrets from the public, but of course, that is naive.

Sources:

Algeo, Matthew – The President Is A Sick Man – Chicago Review Press, 2011

Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

Brodsky Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character. NY, St. Martin’s Press, 2000

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Grover-Cleveland

https://www.npr.org/2011/07/06/137621988/a-yacht-a-mustache-how-a-president-hid-his-tumor

 

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The Connection of Aaron Burr and Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

People love a good scandal true or false – but especially if it involves peccadilloes.

Aaron Burr (1756-1836)

Aaron Burr had an interesting, if volatile and suspect career. In more than 250 years, he has attracted an assortment of partisans and detractors. There is no definitive conclusion, save that his character and actions remain divisive.

Young Aaron Burr

Orphaned early to be raised by prominent relatives, he nevertheless attended (now) Princeton University where he was acquainted with James Madison. He was a brilliant student, returned to New York to study law, joined the Continental Army (perhaps to enhance his budding law practice).

He served under a variety of commanders, including Benedict Arnold and later a brief stint as ADC to George Washington. But he preferred active service, fought bravely, and finally was discharged for health reasons.

Always ambitious, he became politically active in New York politics, usually siding with the powerful faction of Governor George Clinton (Democratic-Republican), as opposed to the powerful faction of General Philip Schuyler (Federalist), father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. By the 1790s, Burr had been elected to the US Senate.

The rest of his story involves the contested election of 1800, serving as VPOTUS, killing Hamilton in a duel, tried for suspected treason, living abroad, a late-in-life scandalous marriage – and divorce – and finally dying in poverty, at 80.

Martin Van Buren (1782-1862)

Young Matty Van Buren

Born in Kinderhook, a tiny Dutch-speaking village about 20 miles from Albany, Martin was the third of five children (and three half-siblings) of Maria Hoes Van Alen and innkeeper Abraham Van Buren. His early life and schooling were unremarkable. His formal education ended when he was about fourteen – average for that time.

But he was a bright and ambitious fellow and took advantage of the opportunity to read law with a local attorney. They in turn were the ones who admonished him to take greater care with his personal/physical appearance. He took the advice, and became a very natty dresser. He also became active in local politics. Leaning toward the Democratic-Republican political philosophy, he spent a year in the New York City office of William P. VanNess, a political colleague and supporter of Aaron Burr. It is not unlikely that this is where they became acquainted.

The Insinuations of Bastardy

From the onset of Martin Van Buren’s legal career, there were speculations that Martin Van Buren was the illegitimate son of Aaron Burr.

The rumors persisted throughout his life. Not only has it never been proven, but it has never even been close to proven.


Any resemblance seems superficial.

Burr, about 26 years older, had much in common with young Van Buren. The were both relatively short people, perhaps 5’7” at most. They were also somewhat stocky in build, and loved fine clothing. They both had receding hairlines as they aged. Both were wildly ambitious – no detriment to either. Ambition is essential if one wishes to succeed. They were both considered excellent attorneys, gifted in political sway, and near genius at organization. They were also both known to waffle and switch their political affiliations from time to time, if it suited them and smoothed their upward paths.

In 1782, when Martin Van Buren was born, Burr had already resigned from the Continental Army due to continuing poor health. However, he had been involved for three years in romantic liaison with Theodosia Provost, ten years his senior – and already married. When her husband died in 1781, he married her. They had a daughter, born in 1783.

So Why Did The Rumors Persist?

The inferences of a wrong-side-of-the-blanket relationship between Aaron Burr and Martin Van Buren persisted long after Burr died, and even surfaced occasionally till the time MVB died in 1862 (also at age 80), but not in poverty. Those subtle innuendos were even grist for John Quincy Adams’ diary, and ol’ JQ was known to have a salacious streak for the rumors of the boudoir.

Both AB and MVB were wily politicians. Burr had his fingers in all sorts of political shenanigans, which seems to offset his reasonable and genuine accomplishments. Both shenanigans and accomplishments were always undertaken to further Aaron Burr.

Van Buren, was known as the “Sly Fox” or “Red Fox” of Kinderhook. Occasionally he was referred to as the Little Magician. He could dance some very fancy footwork to achieve political ends, whether for himself, of for others (which usually benefited himself).

Between the physical resemblance and the political acumen, (or even their terms as VPOTUS), one might make a case, however slim – or erroneous.

The Widow Eliza Jumel, AB’s second wife.

Aaron Burr was undoubtedly a ladies’ man. He was known to have had many amours, and it is speculated that his illegitimate children peppered the countryside. His wife Theodosia died twelve years after their marriage, and she had been very ill for a long time. Burr was only 40, but he did not remarry the wealthy widow Eliza Bowen Jumel until he was 77! That brief but disastrous union was undertaken so he could commandeer his new bride’s considerable fortune to finance his business speculations. With near-lightning speed, his enterprises failed, and she was practically impoverished. She sued for divorce, claiming infidelity, among other causes.

In the interim, there were rumors of romances at several locations. In his elder years, Burr had two young-ish men living under his roof, and under his wing. Many people believed they were his illegitimate sons.

Hannah Hoes Van Buren, MVB’s one and only.

But if there were some physical and political characteristics between Burr and Van Buren, romance was not one of them. Van Buren was married at 25 to his childhood sweetheart, Hannah Hoes. She bore him five children (four living to maturity). When she died, after 12 years of marriage (at only 35), he never remarried. While he was unfailingly courteous and gallant toward the ladies, his name was never linked romantically with another woman.

He was a devoted father to his four sons, keeping them very close in his life – for as long as he lived.

 

Sources:

Miller, Hope Ridings – Scandals in the Highest Office: Facts and Fictions in the Private Lives of Our Presidents – Random House, 1973

Stewart, David O. – American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America – Simon & Schuster, 2011

https://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/burr.html

https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/martin-van-buren

 

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George Washington and the Presidential Salary

George Washington was not born to wealth.

GW: The Gentry Background

George Washington (1732-99) was born to a solid middle class gentry family. His father, Augustine Washington, had been married previously, fathered two sons and a daughter, was widowed, and remarried Mary Ball. They had five children together, George being the eldest.

The Washingtons, raised in the Fredericksburg, VA area, owned property and prospered, but they were a far cry from the wealthy planters. The Dandridges, Martha Washington’s family, were in similar circumstances financially, albeit down in New Kent Country, some 100 miles away.

Daniel Parke Custis was the wealthy man.

Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis when she was seventeen, and he more than twice her age. It was a happy union lasting eight years until Custis’ death. He was one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, and Martha and her two surviving children were his only heirs. She inherited around 18,000 fertile acres, a workforce of some 200 souls, fine household furnishings, and the rarest of all commodities, ready cash.

When she married George Washington less than two years later, he became custodian and guardian of the Custis children’s estate, and sole custodian of Martha’s property. Possessing a fine business acumen, he parlayed his own inherited plantation on the Potomac into a magnificent showplace, making him one of the wealthiest landowners in the Colony.

Said to be the earliest portrait of GW.

By 1775, when he was 43 years old, the former Militia Colonel was elected to the Continental Congress on the eve of the American Revolution.

The Unpaid General

Shortly after shots were fired at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, George Washington came to Congress in a splendid military uniform and, according to John Adams, offered to raise 1000 men, subsist them at his own expense, and march them to Massachusetts. It definitely attracted attention.

Congress was willing to pay its now-General-in-Chief a princely sum of $500 a month. To put things into perspective: a lowly private was paid about $6.65 a month, a Captain warranted $20 a month, and other general officers were awarded around $125 a month.

It is very hard to equate colonial money into today’s currency. The United States (and they were still colonies then) had no currency of its own. Some locations used the British pounds and shillings; some used Spanish dollars. Gold worked, too. Bartering was still common.

Washington disdained making any profit (salary) in serving his country, preferring to volunteer, and only accept reimbursement for his expenses. In hindsight, of course, nobody knew the war would last for eight years; nor would they know that Congress would not have the money to pay its officers for the better part of those years.

GW had become accustomed to the very best.

Washington made a pretty good deal for himself, however. He was accustomed to the very best accoutrements, which included a top-of-the-line new carriage for the trip to Massachusetts. His uniforms were custom made. His swords and epaulets were flawless. His field tent and its furnishings were splendid. His personal table was always elegant – and when Mrs. Washington was present, even more elegant. General Washington knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that a great part of his responsibilities lay in attracting wealthy Americans to help finance independence. He needed to face them as an equal, which, in truth, he was.

When he finally relinquished his commission in 1783, he presented the Congress with his expense account. It was a staggering sum, somewhere around $475,000. About ten times the amount he would have earned with a salary, i.e. eight years at $6000 per annum, or $48,000 (which may or may not have been paid, anyway).

Mount Vernon

George Washington was a meticulous record keeper, handwritten in his superb penmanship. He included, along with all his legitimate and personal expenses, the exact amount that he had “advanced” the Army from his own pocket (a considerable sum), and only charged a mere 7% interest. It is said that when Congress reviewed our Founding Father’s Expense Account, they were well satisfied. All the numbers added up correctly.

The Salaried President

There is no indication that Congress (or any of its members) were dissatisfied, or believed Washington’s “expenses” were out of line. GW returned to his beloved Mount Vernon, and for the better part of five years channeled his energies into enhancing his plantation and its holdings. He also kept a very sensitive finger on the public pulse of politics.

When he was recruited to serve as President of the Constitutional Convention, dedicated to revising and reforming a central government, there was little doubt that his august presence would earn him the role of President of the new United States.

So did Martha

GW entertained graciously

He modestly demurred, but when pressed, accepted the nomination and the unanimous election. He also offered Congress (a different Congress, by the way), the same deal: serve gratis, and only be reimbursed for expenses.

This Congress, perhaps wary of a tenfold increase in expenditures, said no. They authorized a salary of $25,000 per year – considered a humongous amount of money. The VP only got $5K. They specified that the President’s expenses should be paid from his salary, to avoid being nickled-and-dimed, as it were. This included the enormous amount of entertaining and hosting expected of a POTUS. Nevertheless, George Washington was still forced to dip into his own pocket, and even accrue some debts in order to preserve the style that he believed befitted the President of a Sovereign Nation.

More on The Salary

The $25,000 per year salary for Presidents remained in place for more than three quarters of a century: until 1873. Ulysses S. Grant got the first raise.

All our Presidents were expected to preserve the style and appearances. Most were forced to augment their salary, opulent as it was, or go into debt. A few were definitely not wealthy men, and some were downright miserly by nature.

It would not be until the 1920s, during the Coolidge Administration, that a separate budget was authorized for Presidential entertaining.

Sources:

Kitman, Marvin – George Washington’s Expense Account – Simon & Schuster, 1970

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000

https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/

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