Florence Harding’s Hatpin Story

Florence Harding loved politics – and she was a very savvy woman.

The Harding: Introduction to Politics

The Duchess

Florence Harding loved politics!

Florence Harding was thirty when she married Warren Gamaliel Harding. He was five years younger, the publisher of a weekly newspaper and the handsomest and most affable man in Marion, OH.

One time when Harding was recovering from a bad cold, he asked his wife, who he nicknamed “Duchess” to go to the newspaper office and bring back a particular folder. She found the office a shambles, with overflowing wastebaskets and ashtrays and a floor that hadn’t been swept for months. She began setting it to rights – and stayed for fourteen years, carving a niche for herself as circulation manager.

A local newspaper publisher is always a welcome guest speaker at civic organizations, and Harding was regularly invited. With the Duchess capably minding the store, he found plenty of time to boost mom, apple pie and the American way at the Lions and Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.

Warren Harding

Warren G. Harding looked like a president.

Of course some of the local politicians discovered the handsome and genial publisher and encouraged him to participate in Republican politics, declaring him to be a man who looked like a President.

Harding was amenable; the Duchess was thrilled. It opened a new “career” for her – boosting her husband. Their political circles expanded, and a solid cadre of lower level politicians gravitated around them.


The Hardings. She loved her hats!!

The Harding house was opened regularly for politics, poker, cigars and whiskey. The Duchess was in her glory, mixing drinks and engaging in the banter. The politicians learned quickly that she was politically astute, and exerted considerable influence on her husband. She was the one with ambitions; he was happy to go with the flow.

Warren Harding: The Senate Years

In 1913 a Constitutional amendment was passed to elect US Senators by popular vote. (Previously they were elected by their state legislators.) In 1914, WGH became Ohio’s first Senator elected by statewide ballot.

They moved to Washington, where Harding slipped effortlessly into the old boy’s club of the Senate. He mixed easily in the fast lane of like-minded men who enjoyed poker, whiskey, cigars – and women. He could also “bloviate”, as he called it, on behalf of Republicans across the country, which he did, leading to a national reputation, at least among senior politicians.

All this played very well with his old Ohio pals who were convinced that Warren Harding was their ticket to high level politics. They started making plans for him.

Harding however, was very happy as a Senator. He was basically a lazy man, and as a Senator, he did not need to work hard. His ambition was satisfied. But it was not enough for MRS. Harding – and Harry Daugherty.

Harry Daugherty: Kingmaker


Harry M. Daugherty promoted Harding’s political rise for years.

Perhaps more than anyone, Harry Daugherty (1860-1941) was responsible for Warren Harding’s presidency. He had been promoting Harding-the-publisher for years.

Daugherty was an Ohio lawyer of dubious distinction and morality, perceived by most as a man who gravitated to the shady side of the street. He was indicted more than once, but never convicted of anything.

By the end of the 19-teens, he was convinced that WGH could go all the way, and spent his time and energy to that end. He had also come to know and respect the Duchess for nearly twenty years, and realized that it was she who batted cleanup in the political lineup. Where Harding wavered, Florence stood firm. They would make a president; Daugherty famously predicted a deadlocked convention that would turn to Harding at 2 a.m. in a smoke-filled room.

The Hat Pin Story

The Hardings.

The Republican Convention of 1920 was held in June at the Coliseum in Chicago, during a blistering heat wave. There was no air conditioning. There was also no front runner. Harding was considered by many as the best of the second-raters. And, as Daugherty predicted, the key politicians who controlled such things finally determined Harding to be their candidate in a smoke-filled room. He would be nominated the next day.

Daugherty was well aware that Florence Harding was a very sick woman, with a serious, and life-threatening chronic kidney ailment. The politician wanted to alert her to the news in advance and avoid any shock to her system.

This is now HIS story…told in the memoirs he wrote after both Hardings had died.

A vintage hatpin from the era – some were several inches long.

He found Mrs. Harding in the balcony of the sweltering auditorium. She had removed her big hat, and was anxiously leaning forward against the rail – holding two enormous hat pins, an essential accessory to the hat fashions of 1920.

Daugherty told her that WGH would be nominated on the next ballot. In her excitement and animation, the Duchess leaped up and accidentally jammed the two hat pins into Daugherty’s thigh. She was completely unaware that poor Harry had been stabbed, and he was too polite to tell her. After a few minutes of conversation, he excused himself to rejoin the politicians on the convention floor.

But he was in great pain and was limping. He could feel wetness around his thigh and realized that he was bleeding. He became lightheaded, and leaned against a pillar to compose himself. He still had work to do. There was no time to inspect the damages, despite the squish when he walked. Blood was seeping into his shoe.

But once Harding was nominated, and the crowd was cheering in excitement, a pained and fearful Harry Daugherty managed to limp back to his hotel room to inspect the dreaded wound. When he took his shoe off, there was no blood; it was only sweat that had been running down his leg.

His imagination had exacerbated what was merely a minor pinprick. No harm done. And the Duchess never knew a thing about it.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1988

Daugherty, Harry M., and Dixon, Thomas – The Inside story of the Harding Tragedy – The Churchill Company, 1932


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

Eleanor Roosevelt: The Red Cross Uniform

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her Red Cross uniform.

Eleanor Roosevelt begged to visit the soldiers in the Pacific.

The Red Cross Uniform Circa WWI

The American Red Cross, begun following the Civil War, had its antecedents in Europe even before the Civil War. Clara Barton had been a dynamo during the War, organizing projects for the Sanitary Commission and bringing aid to wounded soldiers. A decade later she convinced then-President Rutherford B. Hayes that the Red Cross also offered benefits for victims of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. – not just for war-related events.

Red Cross uniforms were not uniform…

By the 19-teens, with The Great War (as it was named then) raging in Europe, and American men and women volunteering Over There, the Red Cross became an enormously popular outlet for thousands of women to make excellent use of some extra time on their hands. They sewed and knitted, rolled bandages, prepared “kit bags,” and sponsored hundreds of fund-raising activities.

…They came in various colors, styles and accessories.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a young Washington, DC matron, was one of those volunteers. She wore her “official” apron and cap, and made sandwiches and poured coffee for soldiers and sailors pouring into/out from the capital.

Interesting enough, there was nothing “uniform” about a basic Red Cross uniform. Every state, and every city and town had its own version. Some had pinafore aprons; some had bib-style aprons. Most were white with a Red Cross affixed. The red crosses had a range of sizes, and were positioned in a variety of locations: breast or pocket, sleeve or collar. All were worn over a woman’s own long A-line-style skirt and traditional shirt-waist blouse. The caps were just as non-uniform.

The Red Cross Uniform Circa WW II

Twenty five years after WWI, the uniform for women in the Red Cross had changed just as dramatically as the women themselves.

No long skirts. No aprons. The traditional cap disappeared.

WWII Red Cross uniforms were not “uniform” either.

But they were modern, and allowed for movement.

Now women wore a simple shirtwaist dress in gray or light blue.  Sometimes they wore a khaki skirt and jacket suit (sometimes blue or gray), with the hem around knee-level. With it went a simple white blouse. The hat sometimes resembled the French style of higher-crowned kepi-cap (like Charles deGaulle); sometimes it resembled the traditional GI cap.  Stockings and sensible shoes were mandatory. The symbol of the Red Cross could be affixed anywhere.

Mrs. Roosevelt: Traveler

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had already logged thousands of air miles by 1942. She had visited scores of US locations hard hit by the Depression. She visited mines and factories. She visited prisons and drought-destroyed farmlands and towns that had gone bust. Once the US entered the War however, all the projects of the New Deal, so dear to her heart, were put on a back burner.

Now, with the War raging in the Pacific, she begged her husband to let her go “to War.” President Franklin Roosevelt was iffy, but promised to run it by the high-brass. High brass in 1942 was old-school, and did not particularly respect/regard women in the military environment, except perhaps as nurses. They were respectful of Mrs. R., of course, and realized her abilities and political clout (both of which were considerable), but they were unanimously opposed. This was War. They could not guarantee her safety, let alone convenience or comfort. Ships could be torpedoed at any time; airplanes were shot down regularly. It would require a tremendous amount of time, staff and energy “looking after her.” She would be in the way. In short: A loud “NO”.

But Eleanor continued to beg, and FDR, as Commander-in-Chief, acquiesced. The brass grumbled, but they were overruled. Wearing the uniform of the Red Cross, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt went to war.

Admiral William Halsey:

Admiral “Bull” Halsey.

Nobody grumbled louder than Admiral William F. Halsey (1882-1959), now assigned as Mrs. Roosevelt’s host-brass. He was not nicknamed “Bull” for nothing. He was pugnacious, tough, uncompromising, with a temper to match. But he could deliver the goods. Eleanor Roosevelt was not pugnacious, and her temperament was even – but she was tough and uncompromising as well. And she could deliver the goods.

Admiral Halsey, within the first 24-hours of seeing Eleanor Roosevelt “at work,” did a complete turnaround.

The Military brass did a complete about-face.

Outspoken and irascible by nature, Halsey was a quick convert. In his memoirs, he wrote of the First Lady:

“Here is what [Eleanor Roosevelt] did in twelve hours: she inspected two Navy hospitals, took a boat to an officer’s rest home and had lunch there, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (her son Jimmy had been its executive officer), made a speech at a service club, attended a reception, and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon.

When I say that she inspected those hospitals, I don’t mean that she shook hands with the chief medical officer, glanced into a sun room and left. I mean that she went into every ward, stopped at every bed, and spoke to every patient: What was his name? How did he feel? Was there anything he needed? Could she take a message home for him? I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental, she walked for miles, and she saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

Mrs. R. visited hundreds of wounded soldiers.

She not only visited every ward in the hospitals and the infirmaries, she visited the military bases and ships. She dutifully attended to the “politics” of war, appearing at the obligatory luncheons and dinners.   She kept a detailed notebook of names and families, dates and places, and diligently wrote personally to all their mothers and wives and sweethearts. All were heroes in her letters, which she knew would be saved and treasured for posterity. The men loved her. So did the brass, and they were not a bunch easily swayed.



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

VP Thomas Marshall and the Flag

Thomas R. Marshall, VP 1913-21

Thomas Marshall is one of the unknown and generally disregarded Vice Presidents….but…

About Tom Marshall

Thomas Riley Marshall (1854-1925) was an attorney, and like James Madison, diminutive in stature – perhaps only 5’2 or 3”.

An Indiana Hoosier, he gravitated to the Democratic Party, but behind the scenes. He shied away from the spotlight of candidacy. Blessed with a witty, frequently sardonic, and occasionally deprecating sense of humor, he was a popular emcee or keynote speaker promoting others on the Indiana Democratic rubber chicken circuit.

Early in his career, he developed a distinct thirst for whiskey, and his prospects were somewhat curtailed. Then, in his middle years, he met the proverbial “good woman” who changed his life. He gave up strong drink, turned everything around, did well and eventually was elected Governor of Indiana in 1909.

The Democratic ticket in 1912

In 1912, according to a century-old custom of geopolitical accommodation, the genial Indiana Governor Marshall (who most people liked) was elected Vice President to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson (who everyone respected). Wilson had not been in favor of Marshall in the second-spot, but he acquiesced.

The Office of Vice President 1912

According the the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate. Period. Nothing else is articulated, thus he serves at the President’s pleasure. (NOTE: Of course it is proscribed that the VP assumes office at the death/incapacity of the POTUS. In Marshall’s case, that is another whopping good story!)

Vice President Marshall in his Senate office.

By 1912, the office was still mainly ceremonial – ribbon cutting, ground-breaking, and, as Marshall later quipped, “the chief funeral goer in the country.” Occasionally the VP sat on a couple of boards. Wilson did not particularly like or esteem Marshall, believing him to be pleasant enough, but a namby-pamby, whose views frequently were at odds with the President. Marshall was not invited/included in any high-level conferences, and later admitted that nobody took him or his ideas seriously, anyway.

Because of the traditional high prestige/low performance perception of the office of Vice President, his staff consisted of three employees: secretary, part-time telegrapher and driver. He had a car for his convenience, but maintenance and gas was his own responsibility. Many post-Civil War VPs took substantial salary cuts in order to serve. In 1913, the annual stipend was only $12,000 (compared to the Presidential $75,000), and many expenses were paid out-of-pocket.

Asst. Secretary of the Navy F.D. Roosevelt

Asst. Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1913, thirtyish Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a reputation similar to Marshall: charming, affable, and a lightweight. However, he was possessed of a name that was a household word. Having served as a Democrat in the NY State Legislature, he campaigned semi-vigorously for Wilson (against Uncle Theodore), and was rewarded with Uncle Theodore’s old job: the #2 spot to the Secretary of the Navy.

With a little time on his hand, and as a naval aficionado, FDR discovered that while the POTUS had his own flag to be displayed if/when he “came aboard,” the VP had no special ensign. He doodled a design, had it submitted and approved, and a VPOTUS naval flag was made.

Naturally a ceremony for its inauguration was in order, and in 1915, the San Diego, a cruiser anchored in San Francisco harbor near the Panama-Pacific Industrial Exposition grounds, offered a perfect opportunity to hoist the new VP flag. Thomas Marshall was duly invited to be the guest of honor.

Raising the Flag

The USS San Diego

Indiana is a land-locked state, home of a few lakes at best, none of which are suitable for large naval vessels. Thus Governor (and now-VP) Marshall had never been on a naval ship in his life. He was given no information or preparation on what to expect for the ceremony – other than to wear formal clothes, since the military has always been an institution of traditional bells and whistles, pomp and ceremony.

VP Marshall came unescorted, wearing his daytime formal clothing: grey striped trousers, cutaway coat, “boiled” shirt and ascot tie, and patent leather shoes. He had pearl grey gloves, a top hat and cane. He was also smoking his ubiquitous cigar, for which he was famous, along with his quip advising that “what the country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”

As the VP was piped aboard, the sailors in their dress uniforms, were lined up along the railings; the officers and guests (including FDR), in their proscribed stations. The Vice President was escorted to his assigned place of honor.

With no shipboard experience or knowledge of proper etiquette, Marshall respectfully stood at attention, hat on head, cigar in mouth and both hands occupied by his walking stick and gloves.

Then the band struck up The Star Spangled Banner, and Marshall, surprised by the blast of music and realizing the situation, quickly shifted the gloves and cane to his left hand, removed his hat – and cigar – and somehow managed to salute.

To complicate the already complicated posture, as the music ended, the cannon boomed a salute, startling the poor Vice President, and everything went flying two feet into the air in all directions – hat, cane, gloves and cigar!

To make it worse, the newsreel cameras were rolling.

The Admiral and FDR helped retrieve the mortified Vice President’s possessions. FDR, who is usually credited with telling this tale, did not know whether to remain respectfully composed, embarrassed for the Vice President, or to suppress a laughing fit at a very funny situation. He managed to do all three.

The Upshot

Thomas Marshall was a man not known for very much except for his good sense of humor. But not this time.

He was horrified by the chain of events, and departed as soon as humanly (and ceremonially) possible. It was not only a personal embarrassment, but an embarrassment to his office.

After he saw the humiliating newsreel footage, he vowed he would never set foot on another ship. And he never did.


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

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nifty History People, Woodrow Wilson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lou Hoover and the Cow-Pup

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover

Lou Henry Hoover had one of the most interesting lives of any First Lady.

A Brief Background:

Lou Henry (1874-1944) was Iowa born, but her family moved to California when she was a small child, and California was still part of the Wild West. She learned all the frontier skills of camping and riding, climbing and marksmanship – plus all the niceties of town life, since her father was a banker of comfortable means.

Young Lou Henry.

That included an education at a Normal School (teacher’s college), and a year or so teaching the tough subjects – math and science. Then, after attending a geology lecture by Prof. John Branner, she persuaded her parents to let her continue her education at newly-created Stanford University.

Lou Henry was adept at the frontier skills.

Sociable as well as brainy, she majored in geology, met fellow Iowan-turned-Westerner Herbert Hoover, and set herself firmly on a path of adventure. Despite the fact that Hoover and she were the same age, she had taught school for a year, thus he was a senior while she was a freshman.


Herbert Hoover, the young mining engineer.

When he graduated to begin a career in mining engineering, they agreed to correspond; if there were to be any future for the couple, he needed to be able to support a wife. It did not take him long. He parlayed his first job pushing a tram cart for $2/day into a position of superintendent of a Chinese mining operation that paid $40,000/year – only ten grand less than the President of the United States! At twenty-five, Bert Hoover could easily afford a wife. When Lou graduated Stanford with a degree in geology, the two married in 1899, and spent their “honeymoon” en route to China.

The China Years

Scene of China circa the Boxer Rebellion.

In the early years of the 20th Century, China was seething from years of poverty, unrest, and corrupt government, a good deal of which was believed (by the Chinese) to be due to the “foreign interests.” It was a tinderbox waiting to explode.

Herbert and Lou Hoover moved to Tientsin, and settled in a mile-square compound of housing and ancillary services where all foreigners were expected to live. The little compound was divided into separate zones of “influence”: British, German, French, and a small American contingent. As was customary for the wealthy foreigners (compared to their Chinese servants who labored for $5/week), the Hoovers began their life together with six servants to handle the various household chores. The very capable Mrs. Hoover helped her husband with some of his geological tasks, managed the house, socialized pleasantly with her “foreign” counterparts, and began learning Chinese.

Blessed with a gift for languages, Lou Hoover eventually learned several with sufficient proficiency to make herself generally understood. Including a few dialects of Chinese.

Meanwhile the Boxer Rebellion was fomented by angry and unhappy Chinese who targeted their little compound for shelling and siege in 1900. Both Hoovers displayed their leadership coolness under pressure, and began their well deserved reputations as people of consequence and ability. Nevertheless, the Rebellion culminated in “foreign” soldiers (mostly German) sent to Tientsin to maintain order and protect their citizens.

The Cow-Pup Story

Since the compound where the Hoovers lived was small and fairly isolated, its residents were required to be as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, in order to provide fresh milk, the Hoovers purchased a cow – and her calf. Some time later, the cow went missing.

After checking all the neighboring places where a cow might wander off, Mrs. H. was suspicious of mayhem. The animal may have been stolen.

Young Mrs. Hoover.

Adding to the consternation of being cowless and milkless, there was the problem of the calf, who incessantly mooed mournfully for his (or her) mother. The noise was disturbing the entire area.

One of Lou’s Chinese servants, a young boy who spoke enough pidgin English to be understood, made a viable suggestion: take the cow-pup (as he called it) around the compound and let him wail away. Perhaps his mother would hear him, or recognize his scent, and come to look for him.

It seemed like a good idea, so that very evening, Lou Hoover tied a rope around the cow-pup’s neck, and along with a couple of friends, began walking through their compound.

lou in china-2

Another view of young Mrs. Hoover.

Her original suspicions about a possible cow-napping led her to focus on the German cavalry soldiers who had built a small barracks in the German sector. She decided to go there first, cow-pup in tow, mooing his (or her) obvious orphaned distress.


Sure enough, as she approached the soldiers’ barricade, the cow-pup began howling – but this time, there was a distant but distinct response from the other side of the fence. Mama and cow-pup began an active conversation, as the cow began making her way to her offspring.

Lou’s German was fair, and she tried to explain the situation to the sentry at the gate, asking that her cow be returned. Perhaps her linguistic talents did not include specific “mother-and-cow-pup” references. The guard obviously did not understand a word of it.  Meanwhile, the cacophony was growing louder, as the joyous bovines came closer.

Finally there was a glint of understanding from the guard: The cow inside the fence and the cow-pup outside needed to be together.

He grinned his best “aha moment,” opened the fence, grabbed the cow-pup by the halter around his neck, and brought him inside the gate where mother-and-child were reunited. Then he immediately closed the gate, and nodded and smiled at Mrs. Hoover, saying, “danke schoen, danke schoen.”

Mrs. Hoover laughed and went back cowless. What else could she do? It was one of the stories she always enjoyed telling.

No bull.


Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1988

Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Herbert Hoover | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

William McKinley: The Carnation Story

President William McKinley

Few Presidents were as genuinely considerate as William McKinley.

Poor Boy Makes Good

Young Billy McKinley during the Civil War

William McKinley (1843-1901) was one of seven children born to an Ohio iron-worker and his wife. They were poor, devout Methodists, but firmly focused on their children’s education. Thus, when he was seventeen young Billy went to college, but became ill and had to withdraw. Before he could recover and return to school, the Civil War had begun, and the young man enlisted. He remained for the full four years.

General Hayes

General Rutherford B Hayes was McKinley’s lifelong mentor.

During his time in the Union Army, McKinley rose from private to Brevet Major (on-the-field-promotions), and had come to the attention of his commanding officer, General Rutherford B. Hayes. The friendship between the two would be lifelong. It was Hayes who suggested that his young friend study law. McKinley took the advice once the war ended, became an attorney, and moved to Canton, Ohio, a growing town with opportunities.

Affable and congenial, he joined all the fraternal organizations in Canton, plus the Methodist Church and the Republican Party. He was popular, and established attorneys were pleased to refer clients to the young novice.

At twenty-seven, he married Ida Saxton, the well-to-do daughter of the town banker. They adored their new son-in-law. Everybody was happy.

Four Years Later

the mckinleys-2

The young McKinleys.

For four years, William and Ida McKinley were happy. His law practice was thriving; they had numerous friends among the young set; they had a little girl and were expecting another baby. But Ida’s second pregnancy was difficult. Her mother died. The baby was born sickly and died within weeks. Ida’s own health was wracked by painful and debilitating phlebitis, which left her lame. She also developed epileptic seizures. Her little girl died before her fourth birthday. All in the space of a year.

Ida understandably suffered a severe depression, which, when paired with her physical ailments and the powerful medications she required, lasted in varying degrees for the rest of her life. She developed an extremely narrow focus; her life revolved around herself, her husband, and their life together.

In part to escape from their painful memories, and in part to give them both a change of scenery and opportunities, McKinley ran for Congress, won, and moved to Washington DC. They took apartments in the Ebbitt House Hotel, since Ida could not manage housekeeping. And, at great expense, they hired a full-time nurse-companion, since she couldn’t not be left alone for long periods of time.

The Next Twenty Years

William McKinley was a good Congressman, with a solid reputation for diligence and common sense. Tariff issues became his realm of expertise, and while it did not generate headlines, it generated respect among his peers. He was a well liked legislator, and made dozens, if not hundreds of friends. They quickly learned that if he was not in his office, or on the floor of Congress, he was home with his invalid wife. That devotion, along with his genuinely good nature, earned him their affection.

McKinley served in Congress for seven terms, followed by four years as Governor of Ohio.

In 1896, he earned the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He won handily.

The Good Luck Carnations

Ida McKinley, being a wealthy girl-to-woman, had the expensive tastes of a pampered daughter. With her life so curtailed by physical and emotional infirmity, her doting husband was happy to indulge her in whatever way he could. She was pretty with a petite figure and loved fine clothes made from fine fabrics. Her indulgent husband bought her whatever clothes she wanted. She loved diamonds. He bought her diamond necklaces, bracelets and rings. Roses were her flower of choice, so fresh arrangements of roses were placed in whatever rooms she occupied. That included the White House.

McKinley and VP Hobart. It is a rare photograph of him wearing a carnation.

He, on the other hand, had developed a personal trademark of wearing a carnation boutonnière.  It was Ohio’s state flower. Sometimes he wore white ones; sometimes red ones. As President, bowls filled with red and white carnations were conspicuously placed in whatever rooms he frequented.

The Ohio state flower.

One of McKinley’s winsome little customs was to remove his lapel carnation and offer it to guests as a souvenir, or to give to an absent wife or mother or child. Then he would replace his boutonnière with one from the handy bowl. McKinley was superstitious about these carnations, believing them to bring good luck both to him – and to the recipient.

One story goes that an aide brought his sons to the White House to meet the President. McKinley, who loved children dearly, happily offered his carnation to the older boy. The younger son looked disappointed, as the President took a replacement carnation from the bowl, and duly placed it in his own lapel. A minute or so later, he removed it and gave to the younger child, explaining “this way you both can have a carnation worn by the President.”

The Bad Luck Carnation

President McKinley always wore his signature carnation when he was traveling and likely to meet many people. His aides, knowing his habit, made certain that several dozen flowers were on hand.

The story goes that in September, 1901, when McKinley visited the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, he wore his usual boutonnière. A one-hour meet-and-greet with the general public was scheduled, and on the dais, was his ubiquitous bowl of replacement carnations.

Toward the end of the hand-shaking reception, he offered his carnation to one of the visitors. Rather than immediately replacing his flower however, he moved the line along quickly. He would replace it when the reception was over.

Only minutes later, one of the visitors waiting to shake hands was Leon Czolgosz, who pumped two bullets into the carnation-less President.


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

Leech, Margaret, In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959

Morgan, H. Wayne – McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, William McKinley | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

George Washington and the Rules of Civility

If you visit any George Washington-related national site, the gift shop usually includes a slim volume of George Washington’s Rules of Civility.

The Processes of 18th Century Education

young GW

George Washington always maintained the utmost dignity and civil behavior.

When George Washington was born in 1732, schools as we know them, were rare. If they received “education” at all, little children received the basics at their mother’s knee. They learned their letters and numbers. They learned Bible stories and Aesop’s fables, both of which provided “moral” education. They learned to read and write. Little boys learned to use tools or other instruments for a trade or property management. Little girls learned to sew and cook and housewifery skills.

Later, if a family could afford it, a tutor might be engaged, or perhaps co-engaged with neighbors. If a family was wealthy or intellectually inclined, a little boy might be sent to board with a schoolmaster, frequently a classically educated clergyman who taught to augment his small income. Thus the child studied Latin and Greek, advanced mathematics, the Scriptures, some science and philosophy.

Little girls usually remained home; mother was the best teacher!

The “tools” of learning were simple and few. A slate, chalk, cloth for “erasing,” and, once a child progressed, some paper, quill pen and ink (which was costly). Books for a child were usually out of the question. They were a luxury and extremely expensive, usually handed down within families. (It would not be until the mid-18th century that Benjamin Franklin, printer-and-sage of Philadelphia, organized the first FREE public lending library.)

Copy Exercises

Copy books were standard penmanship exercises.

If any outside “source” material was available, it was a page here or there that a child could read or copy from. Once children learned to write with enough proficiency to warrant the expensive paper and ink, it was common to have them copy various previously published materials. This served many purposes: it improved penmanship, a highly valued skill; further absorption of the learning-points through the copying process; and in many cases, those copy exercises could be crudely bound into a book that the child kept for future reference.

Most flimsy childhood copy book exercises were lost or discarded over the years, particularly when education advanced and the tools of learning were more readily available.

George Washington and Civility

Next to learning the Bible, learning moral behavior and good manners was crucial to an 18th century adolescent.

No doubt George Washington, fatherless at eleven, had already learned the basic behavioral dos and dont’s: Respect your elders. Children should be seen and not heard. Wait your turn. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Et cetera.

Fortunately for George, his half-brother Lawrence, a dozen or so years older, had always taken an interest in the bright fellow, whose plans for a “classical” education in London were now thwarted.

mount vernon

Mount Vernon was smaller and more rustic when George Washington first visited.

Lawrence Washington had inherited a thriving property along the Potomac that he named Mount Vernon. His closest neighbors were the Fairfaxes, arguably the highest ranking family (nobilitywise) in Virginia. In addition to wealth, title and property, they were also cultured. They filled their home with fine things, and opened it to the creme of Colonial society. Their conversations reflected their learning and education. When Lawrence married a Fairfax daughter, it was considered a huge advantage for the Washington family.

Young George Washington was invited for frequent visits with Lawrence and his bride – which meant exposure to the fine-ness of Fairfax living. They liked George, and were happy to have him associate with their elite and usually learned guests. They also were happy to help mentor him and make many things possible.

Unquestionably, the young Washington wanted very much to emulate the Fairfaxes in every way: In manners, in taste, in education and learning, and perhaps most of all, in acquiring the obvious respect they enjoyed from their fellow Virginians. They were his role models, and he aimed high.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior

“Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” has been reprinted hundreds of times.

Somewhere in Washington’s possession, perhaps discovered after his death, was a little booklet written in his own hand, entitled The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. It was compiled when he was about sixteen, considered to be a copy-book exercise to improve his manners and his penmanship, both of which were excellent. The fact that the crudely bound booklet was kept for so many years is testament to the importance of both the lessons it taught, and the penmanship that was deemed the best of all the “Founding Fathers.”

There were 110 “Rules,” generally thought to have been composed by French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century.

The “rules” themselves range from the obvious to the archaic, and some are guaranteed to raise a smile in today’s world.

Before and after drinking, wipe your lips; breath [sic] not then or ever with too great a noise, for its uncivil.

In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

Put not off your Cloths [sic] in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest [sic].

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously [sic] upon it if it be upon the Cloths [sic] of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths [sic] return Thanks to him who puts it off.

These rules were of major importance to a young man who wished to achieve stature – perhaps even more so to a young man who would never enjoy the educational benefits of many of his future peers. Most of them still apply today!

Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable [sic] yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.

Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.

You can check the Mount Vernon website for all of them!


Freeman, Douglas Southall – Washington – Scribners, 1968

Kaminski, J.P. and McCaughan, Jill A. – A Great and Good Man – Madison House Publishing, 1989



Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, George Washington | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

1861: A Year of Six Presidents


Abraham Lincoln 16th POTUS

Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 set many precedents.

Presidential Precedents.

Abraham Lincoln was a President of many firsts: The first POTUS born west of the Appalachian Mountains (KY); the elected first from Illinois; the first elected by popular plurality in a field of four (Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell), and the first Republican President – a new party, fielding only its second national ticket in 1860.

It was also precedent setting, inasmuch as seven states had already seceded from the Union by March 4, 1861.

But one of the lesser known “precedents” that Lincoln inherited was unique: five former presidents were still living.

Martin Van Buren (1782-62)

Martin Ban Buren, 8th POTUS

Martin Van Buren, D-NY was Andrew Jackson’s chosen successor as President (1837-41), when Lincoln was a young Illinois state legislator.  The “Little Magician” as he was called, was a crafty politician and competent enough, but lacked charisma. He inherited the fallout from Jackson’s banking policies that resulted in a financial depression. Not his fault, but nobody cared to split hairs.

He served one term, but remained active in party politics for another decade. In the mid-40s, he helped found the Free Soil Party ticket – against the spread of slavery in US territories. It was a concept that Lincoln espoused, but he was a devotee of Henry Clay, a Whig.

Van Buren died at his home in Kinderhook, NY a little more than a year after Lincoln was inaugurated. He was 80.

John Tyler (1790-1862)


John Tyler, 10th POTUS

John Tyler, of Virginia became President only a month after his predecessor William Henry Harrison died. A lifelong Democrat, Tyler was elected VP on the Whig ticket as a geopolitical accommodation. Nevertheless, he alienated both Whigs and Democrats. His lack of popularity kept him not only from a term of his own – but he was not even nominated.

As the slavery/sectionalism issues accelerated during the following decades, Tyler had hoped the country would choose him as a compromise candidate. It didn’t. As a former POTUS, he was deeply torn, and even served as President of a Commission to try a last ditch effort to save the Union. It failed.

When Virginia seceded, Tyler chose Virginia, and was elected to the Confederate Congress. Before he could be sworn in, he died suddenly of a stroke. He was 71.

Millard Fillmore (1800-74)


Millard Fillmore, 13th POTUS

Millard Fillmore, NY Whig, also became an “accidental” POTUS when Zachary Taylor died. Born and raised near Buffalo, he was considered a mediocrity: lawyer-turned politician-turned Congressman, and eventually VP candidate as a geopolitical accommodation.

His two years as President saw the passage of a rigorous Fugitive Slave Law, which excerbated the deteriorating chasms that were tearing the country apart. Overlooked by the Whigs in 1852 for a term of his own, Fillmore nevertheless attracted a narrow, xenophobic party nicknamed “Know-Nothings.” They made enough noise to be heard, but not enough to win.

He married a wealthy widow a few years after his wife died, and lived in comfortable mediocrity.  He died in 1874, aged 74.

Franklin Pierce (1802-69)

franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce, 14th POTUS

Franklin Pierce, D-NH, had a respectable background as an attorney, Congressman and Senator. Having declined a cabinet offer from President Polk in 1844, he returned to practice law in Concord.

In 1852, all but forgotten, Pierce became a dark horse candidate: a Northerner sympathetic to Southern “issues,” and thus acceptable.

His was a depressed presidency on many fronts, especially coming on the heels of the tragic death of his 11-year-old son only weeks before his inauguration. Like Fillmore, Tyler and Van Buren, he was not nominated for a second term.

His later years were just as depressed. Strongly anti-Lincoln, he had favored his Secretary of War and close friend Jefferson Davis, now Confederate President. His only personal contact with Lincoln (who he never met) was a graceful and sincere letter of condolence when the Lincoln’s lost their 11-year old son.

Pierce traveled abroad for a while, returned to Concord, drank heavily and lost most of whatever prestige he may have had. He died in 1869, age 67.

James Buchanan (1791-68)

James Buchanan, 15th POTUS

James Buchanan, D-PA, had a fine resume and reputation: lawyer, Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and diplomat. He was short listed as a Democratic Presidential candidate for a dozen years.

Having served as Ambassador to England during the turbulent Pierce Administration, he avoided the political fray; good relationships with southern counterparts made the Pennsylvanian “available” in 1856.

The times, the troubles and the tired 65-year-old were on a collision course. Buchanan was temperamentally unsuited to the problems and hard decisions necessary. His presidency is still considered the worst in history.

The actual meeting between a 70-year old Buchanan and Lincoln is widely quoted, with Buck said to have remarked that if Lincoln was as happy to assume the office as he was to depart, he was a happy man indeed.

Buchanan did one service for Lincoln however. He recommended that Lincoln use a summer cottage at the Soldiers’ Home a few miles outside of town. It was cooler than the miasmal climate of Washington. Lincoln heeded the advice, which in that case, was excellent.

Buchanan returned to his home in Lancaster, and died at age 78.

A POTUS Postscript

It would be 130 years before a another President could count five living ex-Presidents. In 1992, President Bill Clinton “inherited” Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

They all lived a lot longer than their 19th century predecessors.









Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments