John Quincy Adams: Weights and Measures

The Constitution of the United States mandated that Congress develop a standardized system of weights and measures – back in 1787.

Early Attempts at Uniformity

No one argued with the importance of uniformity of measuring things – from the purity of metals to the exact amount of ounces in a pound of butter. Everyone agreed that consistency was the key to sound trade between the new states. A pound of sugar in New Hampshire should be the same weight as a pound of sugar in Georgia.

President George Washington put the project in motion. Sort of.

Early in his first term, President George Washington reaffirmed the constitutional mandate and urged Congress to act accordingly. The problem was that since each State had its own close-but-no-cigar system of measurement, no Congressman wished to upset the local status quo for a common system. Ergo, nothing was being done. 

Washington assigned the project to his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who suggested that they either a) adopt the common British system, or b) create a decimal system based on the foot. When Congress learned that the British were in the process of re-evaluating its system, they agreed that wait-and-see might be the easiest approach.

They waited and waited, and nothing was happening. The Napoleonic wars were in the way, and both the British and the French were proposing separate “measures.”

The Right Man for the Job

President James Monroe had a dedicated Secretary of State.

Determining such an exacting system is tedious and time-consuming. It takes a huge amount of patience, diligence and devotion to detail. But in 1817, when POTUS James Monroe charged John Quincy Adams, his Secretary of State, with the task of compiling a comprehensive report on the subject, he found the perfect man for the job.

Ruler Mathematics Instrument

All the tools of weights and measures required consistency.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was a creature of exacting habit, whether it was what time he rose, how many lines of poetry he read, or the number of steps he took to walk a mile. It was his nature to be devoted to minute detail. Even as Minister Plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg, Russia, he made an “avocational” study of Russian weights and measures, and found them grossly inconsistent with their nearest equivalents in the US. It was a study that entranced him.

Historian Sharon Selin states that JQA’s wife Louisa wrote, “…no article however minute escaped his observation and to this object [weights and measures] he devoted all his time.”

As Secretary of State with a small staff (perhaps a dozen), he was already spread thin, between interaction with the President, the cabinet and the Congress. Then of course, there was interaction with foreign diplomats. Treaties. Supervising his staff. Managing the patent office. Compiling an index of Congressional laws. Et cetera. Much as he truly enjoyed plunging into the abyss of pounds, ounces, feet, yards, bushels, barrels, Troy weights and currency, he had little time for the exacting study he relished. 

Trying to Get the Job Done

The need for consistency between the states (there were 19 when JQA became Secretary of State, 24 eight years later) was readily apparent to everyone as essential to successful and generally uncomplicated trade. JQA wrote that “weights and measures may be ranked among the necessities of life to every individual of human society.”

(For the like minded, Sharon Selin gives an excellent in-depth analysis of how JQA tackled the job! Read it!)

John Quincy Adams was an exacting man.

Secretary Adams began by reading through Thomas Jefferson’s report, and wrote to the proper authorities in every state, requesting a comprehensive study of their individual system of weights and measures. This usually included receiving samples of their instruments, whether various scales or yardsticks, cups or vials. He also collected vast amounts of information from England and France. He complained to his diary that “the researches necessary” were so time consuming, he could make scarce progress. This was especially frustrating, since the weights and measures “project” was considered a sideline to his other duties and obligations.

Finally, by 1819, he found some spare time for the subject that so fascinated him. He wrote in his diary “The deeper I go, the deeper and darker appears the deep beneath…yet it now fascinates and absorbs me to the neglect of the most necessary business.” He spent an inordinate amount of time in his office, and was even locked in by the night watchman, unaware that the Secretary was laboring on alone after hours.

Mrs. JQA likely found the project tiresome.

His long-suffering wife Louisa wrote to their son John, “…his whole mind is so intent on weights and measures that you would suppose his very existence depended on his report.” 

JQA’s Report

Finally, three years later, John Quincy Adams submitted a monumental report to Congress. He also sent a copy of the massive document to his father, former President John Adams, who wrote congratulating him, noting that while he had not read it, acknowledged that “no Industry but yours could have collected [so much… information] in so short a time.”

The report, however, recommended that no change be undertaken by Congress. Ever the pessimist, JQA philosophically noted that the inherent conflict between legislative and executive controls would demonstrate the “impotence of human legislation against the laws of nature, in the habits of man.”

Nevertheless he proposed that the US work closely with European counterparts in their systems, and that Congress might declare appropriate laws referring to the LEGAL weights and measures of the Union, and giving exact duplicates of each standard to every State and territory, hoping they might comply individually.

The report could be measured in pounds as well as pages.

He commented to his diary, “I have no reason to expect that I shall ever be able to accomplish any literary labor more important exertion to the best ends of human exertion, public utility, or upon which the remembrance of my children may dwell with more satisfaction.”

But he obviously measured up, and was about as happy as he was able to be.

His wife said it better, “Thank God we hear of no more weights and measures.”


Nagel, Paul C. – John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life – Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press – 2012


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Dolley Madison: The Recipe Swap

  Just as the Madison parlor was always full, so was their dining table.

The Early Madison Years

When the young widow Dolley Payne Todd became Mrs. James Madison in 1794, their first two years were spent in Philadelphia, then capital of the United States, where Dolley had lived since she was fifteen.Taught as a Quaker to scorn frivolity and fashion, Dolley Payne was accustomed to the “plain” image: gray gowns and bonnets, plain house accoutrements, and plentiful but plain menus.

Congressman Madison, on the other hand, seventeen years older than his 25-year-old wife, came from wealthy planters in central Virginia. While his personal style was plain enough, befitting his small-in-stature persona, he was also accustomed to participating in the gracious company of his elegant peers.

Having waited so long for the pleasure of marital happiness, Madison wanted to shower his pretty new bride with the best he could provide. He gave her an heirloom necklace as a wedding gift (her only jewelry other than her wedding ring). He is also said to have given her a generous sum of money for a new wardrobe. Since the Quaker elders disapproved of her marrying out of faith, they technically expelled her. But Dolley remarked on occasion, that she never believed she had the “soul” of a Quaker. And she always liked pretty things. 

She was happy to partake of Madison’s indulgence, and purchased new gowns and hats in bright colors and fine fabrics. Her Quaker gray gowns were for daily house chores. From the start, she opened the Congressman’s home to frequent visitors. She thrived on pleasant company, and her shy husband was delighted to bask in her popularity. It was a new experience for him. 

The Jefferson Years

One of the earliest images of the White House.

But in 1800, Thomas Jefferson was elected President, and immediately sent for his closest friend, James Madison, to be his Secretary of State. Dolley was eager to go to Washington, the new capital city; she had missed being where the action was.

Thomas Jefferson was a widower, whose daughter Martha Randolph, occasionally served as his hostess, but was destined to have eleven children, and not always available. Mrs. Madison, as ranking woman, was often asked to fill the breach. 

Secretary of State Madison – Dolley spruced him up a lot!

President Jefferson disdained large formal dining, preferring the “small table” of a dozen or so well chosen guests. Since Washington was such a new city, with a part-time population, and no well-established society, there was nowhere for the congressmen and senators, judges and diplomats and high-ranking officialdom, and even non-official prominent Washingtonians to gather informally.

Thus Dolley Madison opened the home of the Secretary of State to near-daily receptions and salons and luncheons, dinners and suppers. The house was open to everyone, regardless of political party or social rank. It not only won friends for her husband, but it began to influence people. 

Whether she actually did any serious cooking, then or ever, still remains fuzzy, but we do know that like Martha Washington, she was a collector of recipes. What is also definitive, was a few of her refreshment choices, then a great novelty. Like her seed cake, using caraway seeds, perhaps more reminiscent of rye bread. Or her decision to offer cups of hot bouillon at her receptions, as well as the traditional coffee and tea and punch.

Then there was ice cream, which she did not invent, but definitely popularized as a cherished dessert.

Ice Cream Clipart Free | Clipart Panda - Free Clipart Images

An all-time favorite dessert. But not oyster.

The White House Years

President James Madison

By the time James Madison was elected 4th President in 1808, the Madisons were well known and established on the political scene. Dolley’s long-standing, well-attended Wednesday evening “squeezes” were on everybody’s social calendar. No invitations were necessary. And everyone came.

Dinners, however, were different. Attendance was dictated by the finite number of people who could be accommodated at a table. But since the Madisons seldom dined alone, practically everyone in official Washington received a dinner invitation at some time or another. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dolley-by-gilbert-stuart.jpg

The incomparable Dolley Madison!

Naturally the First Lady did not wash dishes or peel potatoes. She engaged an executive chef, and servants/services as needed. According to the delightful Dolley maven, historian Catherine Allgor, Dolley’s table was in the English style: meats served separately from dishes of vegetables. In time she adopted the French style, to include seasonings and sauces.

The Madison plantation provided many staple grains and vegetables, and Dolley relied on local game: deer, turkey, duck and a wide variety of seafood and shellfish from the abundant Chesapeake. The arrival of expert bakers and confectioners in the capital quickly resolved the dessert problem.

It became a distinct honor and privilege to be invited to Mrs. Madison’s table. According to Allgor, “In her skillful hands, people could be…easy, elegant and even a tad aristocratic. But the social atmosphere successfully masked the high political stakes.” 

The Recipe Exchange

Dolley Madison frequently decried any personal “politicking,” believing only in “politics by people.” For her, knowing parties, agendas and factions were secondary to knowing the people personally. Including their relatives.

Part of her outreach program was to write to the distaff member of important political (and other) families across the country – many of whom she had never met. These women considered it an honor to be contacted by Mrs. M. and hoped their prized recipe might be included in the next White House dinner. 

In exchange, Dolley was delighted to send one of her recipes – very possibly for “ice cream,” a new delicacy that might make her correspondent a queen of society in her own home town. It is not known if she included her favorite flavor: oyster. It never seemed to catch on.

Was it good politics? What do you think?


Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Gould, Lewis L. – American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy – Routledge Press, 1996

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill

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Hodgenville: The First Lincoln Memorial

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lincnatlbirthplace.jpgMore than a decade before the magnificent temple dedicated to the memory of the 16th President was built in Washington, DC…

The Birth Place…ish

… a fine new-classical Greek temple was designed, built and dedicated to house the birthplace and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It was located in remote little Hodgenville, Kentucky, just a few miles from where Tom and Nancy Lincoln gave birth to their son in 1809.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is preslincoln.jpg

In 1809, the area was part of Hardin County (now Larue County), and always how Lincoln himself referred to the place of his birth. Hodgenville, a little town in the middle of not-very-much, was selected for the singular honor, since it lies between Lincoln’s actual birthplace on some 300 acres purchased by Thomas Lincoln for $200 in Sinking Spring, and the Knob Creek Farm where AL lived between the ages of 2 and 7. He had no personal memory of the place and his parents were long dead. The land and the cabin changed hands several times by 1865.

Lest anyone get the idea that the little log cabin honored and protected inside the temple on the hill is actually the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, rest easy. It is not. According to Robert Lincoln, at the time of its dedication, the actual cabin rotted away in disrepair by the time his father was in the White House. 

Then of course, there are some folks who claim that the honored and protected cabin was made from some of the logs and timbers from the original, and which was moved and toured around the country as a popular exhibit. The only definitive statement, is that it is not the original cabin, and it is also doubtful that any of the timbers were cut by Tom Lincoln.

Ergo, it is a symbolic replica of a log cabin of that era, of that rude construction, and of a commensurate size. 

The Cabin Makes the Rounds

Despite whether or not the cabin was Lincoln-genuine, following the assassination of the 16th President, myths arose, and the great man of log cabin fame became a legend in the hearts of his countrymen.

In 1894, Alfred Dennet and Rev. James Bigham (who were not averse to making some money) scoured the area and finally discovered an old eyesore that they believed (or convinced themselves) to have been the actual log cabin where Lincoln was born. They purchased the land and rotting structure for $3000, and dismantled it, to be rebuilt elsewhere – in a far more accessible place than tiny Hodgenville. They had hope it would become a tourist attraction for the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not live up to expectations. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lincbirthcabin-1.jpgAs a matter of fact, the cabin was dismantled and rebuilt several times over the next decades – and attracted huge visitors when it was on display at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial in Nashville. A similar log cabin, said to be Jefferson Davis’ birthplace was also on display. 

Then both cabins were dismantled and shipped to New York, to be exhibited at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. While sincere care was taken in the dismantle-mantle process, it appears that some of the logs and boards may have been commingled. 

But perhaps Rev. Bigham, who had been eager to stir up the ballyhoo, said it best: “He [Lincoln] was born in a log cabin, right? And all log cabins look pretty much alike.”

The Centennial Year

With the centennial year of Lincoln’s birth (1809) approaching, the nation understandably wanted to honor the great man and neither knew (nor cared) whether the log cabin was the real deal. 

So, in 1906, with both Dennet and Bigham dead, the Lincoln Farm Association was established to raise money to purchase the land surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Among many prominent founding members were Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Journalist Ida Tarbell and William Jennings Bryan. They also commissioned architect John Russell Pope to design an appropriate (i.e. impressive) building to house the “supposed” birthplace cabin that had been making rounds for years.

Money thus raised, land thus purchased and designs thus accepted, it fell to President Theodore Roosevelt to lay the cornerstone on February 12, 1909. Despite wet weather and mud, an estimated 12,000 people turned out for the ceremony. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lincbirthplace-dedication.jpg


In 1911, the actual work began, and the beautiful marble and granite Beaux Arts style temple was constructed. The symbolism was carefully designed: 16 windows and rosettes, for the 16th President; 56 steps, signifying Lincoln’s age at his death. All was set to bring the log cabin back to Hodgenville and rebuild it for its permanent enshrinement.

But, as they remeasured the carefully measured cabin, they discovered it was too large for the assigned space. Perhaps the measuring was askew. Perhaps a few “Jeff Davis logs” got into the mix. 

The upshot was that the cabin’s construction had to be shortened by a couple of feet all the way around so it could fit. By the time of its dedication, the cabin was considered by most to be a replica.

President William Howard Taft did the honors at its dedication ceremony. An estimated 3,000 people attended, and the Lincoln Farm Association transferred the deed to the State of Kentucky.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is elderly-bob.jpgNevertheless, Robert Lincoln, the 16th President’s only surviving son, who was never known to let his enthusiasm run away with him, considered it “a fraud.”


The site is now the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service. The cabin, which nobody considers authentic, is usually referred to as “traditional.” 

That all being said, it is still a lovely site to visit. People still come from miles around. Some myths and legends do no harm. Nobody seems to care whether Abraham Lincoln took his first steps in that cabin. Or not.


Sandburg, Carl – Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years – Harcourt Brace, 1926

Steers, Edward, Jr. – Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President –  University Press of Kentucky – 2007


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Chester Alan Arthur in Hiding

When Chester Alan Arthur was named as Republican VP candidate in 1880, no one was more surprised than he was.

CAA: A Brief Run-up.

Very brief, in fact. Chet Arthur had never been elected to anything before. The New York attorney was a behind-the-scenes politician only well known within his own state, allied strongly with NY Senator Roscoe Conkling, whose best claim to fame was his close relationship with President Grant.

chester a arthur

Chester Alan Arthur

The only other thing notable about Chet Arthur (other than his whiskers) was that he was summarily dismissed by President Rutherford B. Hayes as Collector of the Port of New York in a mega “clean-up” campaign. Arthur was never accused of misdoings or malfeasance, but massive corruption had been committed on his watch. He was thus tainted, and a head had to roll.


In the late 1870s, a growing rift had developed between factions of the Republican Party. The differences mainly concerned patronage (very boring), but the antipathies were huge. The “Stalwarts” were strongly in favor of the old spoils system of political patronage; the “Half-Breeds” understood the benefits of patronage, but supported mild civil service reform.

Anyway, the feud between factions far surpassed any differences between the Republicans and Democrats, who seemed happy enough to sit and watch the GOP implode.

president garfield

Republican nominee James A. Garfield

The GOP ticket 1880

In 1880, after 36 futile ballots, dark horse James Garfield of Ohio was named Republican candidate. To mend fences, an even darker horse, Chester Alan Arthur, was named VP candidate. Again, no one was more surprised than he was. His pal Conkling advised him to decline, but in a rare moment of independence, Arthur accepted, saying it was a greater honor than he had ever received.

Garfield and Arthur squeaked by. Really squeaked. Barely 10,000 votes separated them from the Democrats.

VP Arthur: 1881

In an odd coincidence, there was a tie in the Senate: 37 Republicans; 37 Democrats, and two Independents. Constitutionally, the VP (President of the Senate) can only vote in the event of a tie. There were several of those, and the new VP was truer to his old New York political factions than he was to his new Administration.

Ergo, the President and his cabinet considered him a traitor, and certainly not to be trusted.

The first four months of Garfield’s Presidency were deeply divided over generally petty political and patronage issues. The new President was by nature an accommodating man, inclined to oblige whenever he could. He obliged frequently, but after a while, a line had to be drawn: Either he was going to be President, or merely a rubber stamp for the Senate. He chose President.

Exhausted from the political nit-picking, the President finally had his way, and prepared to take a much needed vacation in New England for the 4th of July. The entire cabinet had accepted an invitation to accompany him. Chet Arthur was not invited. (But then again, in 1881, the Vice President was never considered part of a President’s cabinet.)

Enter Guiteau the Assassin


Guiteau the assassin.

If the Presidency/Vice Presidency was a surprise to both men involved, nothing could have surprised them more than Charles Julius Guiteau, a strange little fellow who showed up at the train station to pump two bullets into the President. After a tragi-comedy of medical ineptitude, the stricken POTUS was brought back to the White House, amid genuine concern that he might not survive the night.

Of course the attack was widely communicated via the telegraph, and the VP was notified of the shooting within an hour of the incident. He was stunned.

Garfield’s cabinet members wired Arthur to come to Washington. He took the night train from New York, and arrived early the next morning. He paid his respects to Mrs. Garfield, and was relieved to learn that the President, while still in serious condition, was resting comfortably.


The dastardly deed.

He attended a Cabinet meeting, where he was totally ignored. So he returned to New York.

CAA: Locked Door And Lowered Shades

There had been dozens of witnesses to Garfield’s shooting. A policeman had immediately been summoned, apprehended the assailant and marched him off to jail. But not before Guiteau uttered some memorable (and widely circulated) words: “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts, and now Arthur will be President.”

Chester Alan Arthur was an attorney of solid legal repute. He was also a decently moral man, certainly not one to plot assassination. He neither expected nor wanted to be President. But Guiteau’s words were reported in all the newspapers and passed along by word-of-mouth. CAA was thus linked to the horrific deed.


POTUS James Garfield lingered for ten weeks.

It was fifteen years since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – a documented conspiracy. If people believed in another conspiracy of some kind, it was understandable. CAA knew that part immediately. He was now tainted (once again) by accusations that were not true. This time, he feared for his personal safety, perhaps his life. Vigilante mobs were not uncommon.

He locked himself in his New York townhouse, admitting few visitors, and only going outside after dark. He categorically insisted he would make no presidential decisions as long as Garfield lived – which was only ten weeks.

His public decorum elevated his reputation. He was commended for his restraint.

The Trial

A year later, Guiteau was brought to trial, and his defense attorney presented an insanity plea. Now-President Chester Alan Arthur submitted a written deposition. He had indeed seen Guiteau numerous times at the Republican Headquarters in New York during the Presidential campaign. He added that his “personal” acquaintance was limited only to the pleasantries: Good Morning, Nice Day….

He also added that he did not believe Guiteau was of sound mind. Dozens of other well-regarded politicians were called to testify and said the same thing. “Not all there in the head.”

Nevertheless, history recounts that crazy or not, Guiteau was executed as a “disgruntled office seeker.” In 1881, the American People wanted to dispose of presidential assassins as quickly as possible.


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

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

Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017

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Calvin Coolidge: A Fish Story

Calvin Coolidge was a man of limited interests.

The Private Mr. Coolidge

There is a story that at some point, Calvin Coolidge was asked what his hobbies were. He replied, “I run for office.”

Young Calvin

Throughout his youth, there is no indication that he ever participated in sports or athletics of any kind. Nor did he have hobbies or pastimes. Not cards or billiards or chess. Not stamps or coins. Once his schooling was over, he seldom read books for pleasure. He did not draw, paint or play a musical instrument. He seldom attended the theater or concerts or “flicker” shows.

He read his newspapers and had a cigar. Sometimes he took a nap.

Presidents and Leisure

The Presidency of itself is a stressful job, and even long-ago Presidents felt the strains and constraints, and valued their rare opportunities to work off excess tensions or even just relax.

Some enjoyed a ride in the countryside – if they got the chance. Some reveled in quiet reading. Many 20th century Presidents enjoyed golf.

Only the stoic James Knox Polk seems to have considered recreation or pleasure as “sinful,” believing his duty was to work continuously. He paid the price, dying at only 53, just months after leaving office. It was said he died from overwork.

Presidential Fishermen

Fishing was a popular recreation for several Presidents.

Chester Alan Arthur was considered excellent – both fresh water and deep sea. Grover Cleveland, during his long bachelorhood (he did not marry till he was 49!) had enjoyed fishing since youth.

Herbert Hoover loved fishing since boyhood, and while he engaged in deep sea excursions periodically, preferred fresh water angling. His late-in-life good buddy Harry Truman liked fishing from a boat, preferably in Key West, Florida.

But by and large, fishing, being a solitary sport (even among companions), it is one that can be enjoyed early on, with only a branch, a string and a makeshift hairpin-hook. It was some part of nearly all early presidential childhoods.

President Coolidge and Colonel Starling

Calvin Coolidge became president suddenly with the death of Warren Harding (who had also been known to do a little fishing from time to time).

Col. Edmund Starling, Secret Service Agent

The new POTUS inherited a fine house-with-staff and servants, and a laconic disposition. He also inherited Colonel Edmund W. Starling, his secret service “escort.”

From the first, the POTUS and the Colonel (an honorary title) seemed to hit it off well. Col. Starling later wrote that the New England Congregationalist and the Kentucky Baptist seemed to have a tacit understanding of each other.

From the outset, Coolidge engaged in a mild activity: taking an early morning walk – or more likely a stroll. He enjoyed window-shopping in downtown Washington. Sometimes he went into the shops. Starling went with him.

President Coolidge was visibly devastated by his son’s death.

But a year after taking office, the President’s 16-year-old son died, and it hit Coolidge extremely hard. Some say he was never the same. Not long after, Coolidge’s elderly father died, and the family vacations to the Vermont farm were no longer  warranted – or pleasurable.

The “Colonel” became very close to the President.

Col. Starling sincerely liked “Silent Cal,” who was becoming even more silent. He worried about his boss, and believed some pleasant leisure activity would be beneficial. Coolidge was a hard sell, but Starling, a lifelong fisherman, persisted.  Finally the President consented to a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in New York – to give the rod and reel a whirl.

Coolidge: Trout Fisherman

The President fishes.

In 1926, Calvin Coolidge was 53, and knew nothing about fishing. On the first day of his new adventure, he showed up in a suit, a shirt with a celluloid collar, a tie, gloves, a derby hat – and waders. A secret serviceman baited his hook. They would always bait his hook and unhook his catch. Coolidge never touched a fish.

The media loved Coolidge as a subject.

Beginner’s luck (or a well-stocked stream) must never be discounted – and CC caught a 5-pounder the first day – and was hooked! He decided he liked it, and for the rest of his presidency, fishing was part of the family vacation. It was the 1920s, booming and roaring and filled with pop culture as we know it. Of course reporters were on hand for the vacations!

Historian Paul Boller tells that on one excursion to Wisconsin, the President was seen returning to his fishing lodge with a string of five good sized fish. When photographed and questioned by a reporter, Coolidge said they were trout. When questioned further as to what kind of flies he had used, the POTUS said that he used worms on a hook.

It made the newspapers.

Avid fishermen who read the newspaper story couldn’t believe their eyes! Trout? The New York World editorialized: “Worms! Words fail. Comment is useless.” Idaho Senator William Borah insisted that it was impossible! It must have been catfish. But if they were indeed trout, they would have to be imbeciles! “No self-respecting trout goes after worms!” Missouri Senator James Reed added that “any trout that will lie on the bottom of a lake and bite a worm is …degenerate!”

Dozens of fishing mavens across the country sent the president letters offering advice – or scorn – for his fishing abilities. Some sent him flies.

Hoover wore a suit and tie – and hat – but looked more like a fisherman!

Meanwhile, in 1928, when Herbert Hoover, an seasoned and experienced fisherman, was campaigning for Coolidge’s position, he heard from a fellow angler who promised to vote for him if he fished for trout with the fly. “But if you use dirty worms like Cal, goodbye!”

A Brief Epilogue

Coolidge retired from the presidency in March, 1929, and only lived four more years. He was never known to go fishing again. Perhaps there was no one to bait his hook.


Boller, Paul Jr., – Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play from George Washington to George W. Bush – Harcourt, Inc,., 2007

Lathem, Edward Connery – Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth – Stephen Greene Press, 1960

Sugrue, Thomas & Starling, Col. Edmund W. – Starling of the White House – Peoples Book Club, 1946

White, William Allen – A Puritan in Babylon – Macmillan – 1938

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, James K. Polk, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Garfield Goes to Congress

General James A. Garfield

…with a little help from President Lincoln. Maybe. 

JAG: A Brief History

Ohio born James Garfield (1831-81) had a very unpromising start in life. His father died when he was two, with little to leave the family.  His mother later had a disastrous remarriage (and divorce), and despite his academic abilities, James was a wild boy, and difficult to manage. He needed some good male-mentoring.

James Garfield was a very smart fellow!

The good part was, that the elders of a small evangelical sect called the Disciples of Christ took an interest in the boy, who was bright and strong, personable and promising, but who definitely needed guidance and direction. They were happy to provide it.

An early photo of Hiram College.

By the time Garfield had graduated Geauga Academy (high school), he was ordained as a minister, and even preached a sermon. Then he went on to tiny Hiram College (now part of Case-Western Reserve), worked his way through as a janitor, and blazed through his studies. The elders believed he was “the future of the school” and sent him to Williams College in Massachusetts (selected mainly because there was an active Disciples community nearby to keep young James on the straight and narrow).

Educating Garfield was worth the effort.

Once again, he did splendidly, graduated with honors, returned to Hiram College and began teaching. In short shrift, he was made President of the College. But he had become interested in politics and decided that a legal education would be most helpful. So he read law with a Cleveland firm, and passed the Ohio bar.

Such success and such strong backing from the town made Garfield a well known figure in the district, and he was quickly elected to the Ohio state senate. He went to Columbus.

Bottom line: James Garfield was a qualified preacher, teacher and lawyer – and never made a living at any of it.

The Civil War Intervenes

Garfield had every intention and desire to pursue the law, but it was early 1861, a succession of Southern states had seceded, and the Civil War was underway in earnest. Not yet thirty, he tried to join the army right after the attack on Ft. Sumter, but Ohio Governor Dennison persuaded him to make a series of speeches throughout Ohio to encourage enlistments instead.

Garfield was an excellent officer.

By August, 1861, the Governor offered him a commission as Colonel of the 42nd Ohio, and he recruited a great many of his friends, neighbors and former students to join the regiment. By December, they had been assembled and trained, and joined General Don Carlos Buell’s Brigade in Kentucky.

Garfield took to the Army just as readily as he took to his academic and political life. He fought at Shiloh, and later in Chattanooga and Chickamauga and came to the attention of his superiors. He was promoted to Brigadier General, and within a year, to Major General – the youngest Major General in the Union Army.

And The Story Goes…

(Actually the “story” part is a really good one!)

According to lore, Garfield’s reputation was so stellar that some of his townsmen, unbeknownst to him, nominated and elected him to Congress – in absentia.

A surprised Garfield is said to have written to the district that elected him, that while he appreciated the honor, he wished to decline and retain his commission, since his duty was to his men. The story continues that the political bigwigs in his election district forwarded his letter to President Abraham Lincoln.

Did Abraham Lincoln intervene?

The President had some slight knowledge of the young General (likely through the dispatches sent to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), and the consensus among the military was that Garfield was a fine officer – and a keeper! And in 1862-3, Lincoln was in dire need of good generals – but…..

Lincoln was also a fine politician, and the political necessities of 1862-3 were frequently as important (if not more important) as the military ones. He is said to have written Garfield a personal letter to the effect that while he commended the General’s desire to remain with his command, he could make all the Generals he wanted with a stroke of his pen. But what he really needed was a good Republican Congressman from Ohio.

He asked Garfield to reconsider.

Un-Massaging the Lore

The story may in fact be apocryphal, particularly since the subsequent relationship between Lincoln and Garfield would always be inconsequential. Nevertheless, it has been widely repeated for 150 years.

Lore, of course, is usually based on some snippets of true… Shortly after Chickamauga, Garfield had become ill and was sent home to recuperate. His Ohio friends and neighbors encouraged him to run for Congress, but he was ambivalent.

True: Much as he liked politics, he had grown to like the Army too, and believed it was his duty to remain with his command. He also did not want to resign his commission.

Salmon P. Chase would become a close friend to Garfield.

True: He did no campaigning. But he did not dissuade his local supporters from trying. They tried, they succeeded, and Garfield was elected in absentia as a member of Congress.

Aha… He was also sent to Washington for additional “convalescence,” and became close friends with former Ohio Governor (and Secretary of Treasury) Salmon P. Chase. It is likely that Chase may have introduced the young General to the President.

Hmmm. The “making Generals” statement of Lincoln was definitely used however, when Moseby’s raiders killed a General in a surprise Confederate raid, and confiscated a couple of dozen horses. This time Lincoln was known to say that he could make Generals but couldn’t make a horse. Sometimes stories and quotes and good metaphors get bandied around loosely….

But happily for Garfield’s ambivalence (which was genuine), he had been elected to Congress in September of 1862 – but would not be required to take his seat until November, 1863 – more than a year later!  He could and did, for all intents and purposes, have his cake and eat it too.





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Theodore Roosevelt Takes the Plunger

Sargeant TeddyOne would be hard pressed to find a more adventuresome POTUS than Theodore Roosevelt.

The Young Fella

young TR

TR was 42 when he became President.

Theodore Roosevelt became President suddenly. He had been a reluctant candidate for Vice President under William McKinley in 1900, but the McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won handily, and they were inaugurated on March 4, 1901. In September, McKinley was assassinated, and TR became President. He was only 42.

Having gone from a frail, asthmatic child who was not expected to live long, Theodore Roosevelt “built his body,” and became not only vigorous, but an ardent proponent of the strenuous life. Along with his new muscles and the quick and inquisitive mind he had from birth, a spirit of adventure and experience and damn-the-hardships attitude marked his entire life.

He carried those traits into the Presidency.

The Age of Transportation

Railroad travel had been around even before TR was born in 1858. It changed the 19th century. By the time of the Roosevelt Presidency, railroad tracks crisscrossed the country, and practically every town and village had railroad access within reasonable proximity. By 1900, trains could travel more than 60 miles per hour. One could easily go across the entire country in a week.

When TR became POTUS, the automobile had emerged as not only a viable mode of travel, but one that promised to be affordable to the common man. By the time TR retired from the Presidency in 1909, Henry Ford had fulfilled that promise, and inexpensive and reliable Model-T Fords were chugging down the growing number of paved highways. It would change the 20th century.

In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright pioneered the airplane, which would put the entire world at one’s fingertips within 50 years. Of course TR was the first POTUS to fly in an airplane, but that was shortly after he was President.


Leonardo had a nifty idea!

A man made machine that could travel underwater was not a new concept in 1900. Four centuries earlier there were designs in Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks for prototype styles. The vessel could work; the biggest problem was ventilation for the sailors.

When George Washington was fighting the British in Brooklyn, some enterprising Americans were touting a submersible vessel (nicknamed Turtle) in battle, specifically to attach explosive charges to an enemy ship. General Washington was another proponent of the “let’s try it” attitude, but this attempt was not successful.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy designed and built the Hunley, specifically to sidle up to a Union naval vessel, attach a mine of some kind, and leave undetected. The vessel demonstrated both the potential – and the danger – of undersea craft. It sank twice. Several lives were lost. But a raised Hunley still managed to sink a Union ship. It worked well enough to convince naval engineers to keep trying, and by 1895, prototypes had been built with bells and whistles that Leonardo hadn’t even considered!

By 1903, the Navy had not only built two US submarines, but had been able to resolve enough ventilation problems to allow submariners to submerge for perhaps a few hours. This, of course would change naval warfare forever.

The USS Plunger

Submarines Shark and Plunger

USS Plunger (SS2)

The original Plunger, a name connoting “derring-do diving,” or a risky gamble, was the second submersible vessel built by the US Navy. The Shark was the first. Neither were designed for any specific purpose other than for research and development.

Built in Elizabethport, NJ and commissioned in 1903 by the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, the Plunger (SS-2) was nearly 64 feet long and 21 feet wide. She could accommodate 1 officer and 6 crew. Nevertheless, The Navy did not believe submarine duty was any more hazardous than on traditional ships, and in fact, the submariners were classified as “on shore-duty.” Bottom line, they received around 25% less pay than regular sailors.

For nearly three years, the Navy experimented with torpedoes and related armaments and tactics. It also served as a training vessel for future submersible crews.

The President as Passenger

TR’s adventure made the papers!

It so happened, on August 22, 1905, the Plunger (SS-2) was undergoing some tests and trials on Long Island Sound, near Sagamore Hill, the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was invited to go for a “plunge.” The adventurous POTUS never had to be asked twice! He agreed, boarded and stayed for two hours while the sub made several dives. When they surfaced, TR spent another hour inspecting the vessel. He later wrote a friend that he had “never experienced such a diverting day…or so much enjoyment in so few hours.” Translation: A bully time!

There was a little more benefit to the President’s visit. He admitted that he went chiefly because he “did not like the officers and enlisted men to think I wanted them to try things I was reluctant to try myself.”

After the dives, TR firmly stated that he believed that submarine duty was difficult and hazardous, and that those engaged had to have iron nerves, and need to be trained at the highest level. Thus, “submarine pay.” Enlisted crew would be paid $10/month extra in addition to their pay rate – plus $1 per each day they were submerged.

The Fate of the Plunger

As one might expect, technology whizzed by, making the original USS Plunger (SS-2) obsolete by 1909. A young ensign, recently graduated from the Naval Academy, took command. He had little regard for submarines in general, considering it a cross between a Jules Verne fiction and a humpback whale. He would change his mind in the years ahead.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz became a champion of submarines.

By 1916, the poor old Plunger, now ignominiously renamed “A-1” was basically used for target practice. Bruised and battered, she was finally sold for scrap in 1922. But there would be other Plungers to do honor to their namesake “ancestor.”

Meanwhile, the young ensign of dubious submarine opinion did rather well for himself. He actually became a strong proponent/authority on submersible vessels, rose in rank, and by World War II, was an admiral. His name was Chester W. Nimitz.


Morris, Edmund – Theodore Rex – 2002, Random House


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