Andrew Jackson Introduces the Polks

James Knox Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress, had a match made by none other than General Andrew Jackson himself.

James K. Polk: Young Attorney

James Knox Polk (1795-1849) was North Carolina born, but Tennessee raised and matured. An unimposing man by stature, he was perhaps 5’6″ and slight of build. Perhaps 135 pounds. His lack of physical presence was compounded by his rather dour and bland personality. Bottom line: forgettable.


James Knox Polk was a physically unimposing man, but one of a diligent and tenacious ethic.

But he was diligent and tenacious, and became an attorney in Nashville. His success was modest, and he even became a court clerk for a while to augment his income – and presence. Whether he enjoyed the practice of law is subject to conjecture, however what he did enjoy was politics. It was said that despite his unimposing stature, he was a good orator, but even with that advantage, his rise was slow.

Jackson the Matchmaker

The one with the imposing stature, both physically and in persona, was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 6’1″ and at the height of his glory when Polk began to practice law.   Jackson had come to Nashville, Tennessee when he was twenty-one and just starting his varied career: law plus business plus land speculation plus horse racing plus plantation owning plus politics, dueling and other mayhem. He was a superstar from the get-go, and was elected Tennessee’s first Congressman.

the hero

General Andrew Jackson was a towering giant of history by 1820. He attracted a large following of young Tennesseans to his cause: the Presidency. Polk was among them.

When he became “General” of the Tennessee militia (more a political than military appointment), Jackson found his true calling and never practiced law again.

James Knox Polk was fortunate to meet Tennessee’s favorite son at the outset of his career, and the great General was happy to befriend the younger man, as he usually did with devoted “followers.”

Miss Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was born to Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s middle class, but middle class “educated”. Current events, newspapers and politics were part of the dinner table discussions. Visiting dignitaries passing through town were often invited to the Childress home.


Miss Sarah Childress was a well-educated young woman, deeply committed to her Presbyterian faith.

In keeping with the family’s focus on education (which included female children), Sarah was sent to a Moravian Female Academy in North Carolina when she was in her early teens. It was considered one of the finest finishing schools for young ladies in the South. Sarah learned the usual “womanly subjects,” plus a generous helping of literature, science, geography, philosophy, and mathematics. She was far more inclined toward the “other” subjects than the domestic curriculum. She never seemed to be fond of housewifery.

The Bachelor, The Matchmaker and The Bride

Possibly because of Polk’s lack of physical attributes, his unexciting personality or both, his success with the fair sex was as lackluster as his law practice. By his mid-twenties, he felt in need of the benefits of matrimony on all levels, but was at a loss on how to begin a courtship – or who to court.

Legend has it that Polk turned to his mentor for advice. General Jackson was known to be a devoted husband, who by that time, had been happily married for nearly thirty years.

“Look no further than Miss Sarah Childress,” Jackson is said to have counseled, adding that the young lady possessed all the qualities that young Polk would require for a happy union, commenting that she was “wealthy, pretty, ambitious and intelligent.”

The twenty-five year old man duly called upon the nineteen year old young lady, and within six months, married her. His career began to blossom as well.

A Match Made in Nashville Heaven

One of the few photographs taken of Sarah and James K. Polk. He died at age 52, only months after his term in office ended.

James and Sarah Polk would be married for a quarter of a century, until his untimely death at only fifty-two. Sarah would later write that in all those years, they never had a cross word.

Her attributes were indeed what Polk needed in his life: an intelligence that would provide him with companionship, much like the happy balance between John and Abigail Adams.

Perhaps the singlemost (albeit conjectured) reason for their contentment was the fact that they were childless. Childless couples tend to become particularly close. The Polks no doubt would have welcomed parenthood, but it was not to be. This fact, in turn, spared Sarah from the many female ills and ailments common with childbirth in the early nineteenth century. She enjoyed a long life (nearly ninety years), of remarkably good health. In addition, with no obligations and responsibilities “at home,” Sarah was free to accompany her husband when and wherever he traveled. He enjoyed having her along.

She would be among the select few Congressional wives who joined their husbands in Washington DC where Polk served for six terms, including a stint as Speaker of the House, during the Jackson Administration.

Despite Sarah’s well-remarked disdain for housekeeping chores like churning butter (“I can buy butter,”) her obvious intelligence and political acumen, plus her sultry good looks and glamorous-for-the-time fashion sense, she was well liked by both men and women. She could keep her mouth shut. Her opinions on political matters were reserved only for her husband’s ears.  And that included during her four years as First Lady.

Sarah Polk had discretion, perhaps the most important attribute she could offer to her husband. Perhaps Andrew Jackson sensed that part, too.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992

Boller, Paul – Presidential Wives – 1988 Oxford University Press


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Mrs. Madison: The Widow Dolley

The widowed Dolley Madison spent the last decade of her life in poor finances, but rich in friendships.

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison when she was at the height of her good looks and popularity.

The Legacy of James Madison

James Madison lived to be eighty-five, frail and failing, but mentally alert.

James Madison was eighty-five years old when he died, frail, nearly blind from cataracts, but mentally alert. Montpelier, his once thriving Virginia plantation was failing, partly due to the vagaries of farming itself, partly due to his deteriorating health, curtailing his personal management, and mostly due to Payne Todd, his stepson. His wife Dolley had been a twenty-five year old widow with a two-year-old son when he married her more than forty years earlier. The Madisons would have no children together.

Payne Todd, was good looking and personable like his mother, given every advantage and opportunity, but it was clear from early childhood, that he was doomed to be a wastrel. By the time he was twenty, he was on the road to wine, wenching and wagering. As might be expected, he fell into debt, regularly turning to his gentle stepfather, who would shield the wife he dearly loved from the hard truth about her dissipated son. Then he would sell more acreage to pay Payne’s debts.  Dolley knew, but she did not know the half of it.

As James Madison’s life drew to a close, his overwhelming thought was to provide for his beloved wife. For some years, he had been reworking and annotating his papers, including the comprehensive diaries he had kept fifty years earlier, during the Constitutional Convention, which, in essence had turned an amalgam of not-very-united ex-colonies into a cohesive country. These diaries would be left to Dolley, with his explicit instructions: sell them for publication. He expected that they would fetch a substantial sum.

Dolley Madison’s Inheritance

The Madison estate in Orange County, VA, before it was restored to its former glory. It was too much for the Widow Dolley to handle.

Dolley could not run Montpelier alone, let alone profitably. In 1836, when Madison died, she was close to seventy, a considerable age at the time. Not long after her husband’s death, Dolley was invited to visit friends in Washington, where she had spent nearly twenty years at the pinnacle of society. She had been the leader of social Washington since the days of Jefferson, happy to extend her generous hospitality to any and all who wished to call.  She knew everybody, and everybody knew Dolley – and loved her. Then after Madison’s two terms as President, they returned to Virginia to spend twenty years of retirement in the rural countryside.

Realizing that she was a city girl at heart, The Widow Dolley decided to move back to the capital where she had spent her happiest years. She sold Montpelier and paid its debts, which included honoring Madison’s bequests to nieces and nephews. She herself was left in poor circumstances. Her health was being to show her advancing years, adding more troubles to her financial stress. She had no trusted family members to rely on for guidance and assistance. But she had those diaries – and hope that a publisher would be found.   Then she moved to Washington.

Hello Dolley!

The town had grown from a tiny village in Dolley Madison’s heyday, to a burgeoning city. Everyone was delighted to have Dolley back where she belonged, and it is said that the day she moved in to her little rented house on Lafayette Square, more than a hundred calling cards were waiting for her.

Photography was a new invention when Dolley was an elderly widow living in Washington.

But a commercial publisher was not forthcoming for the Madison diaries, but an old friend suggested that Congress might purchase them. Congress loved Dolley – everyone did. Her hopes rose again. And again, were dashed. Congressmen being Congressmen, they took their sweet time about it, dickering and bickering and referring the matter to committees.


Dolley’s son Payne Todd was a great disappointment. Congress wisely set up her funds as an annuity, so could not wheedle money out of his already impoverished mother.

Meanwhile the Widow Dolley was hard pressed for ready cash, and everybody knew it.  It was also no secret that her son Payne was largely responsible for her pecuniary difficulties. Congress would take nearly two years to finally complete the purchase of the Madison papers, but they also did her a great service. They arranged that the contract be paid as an annuity, thus insuring that Payne Todd would not be able to wheedle the money from his always doting, but seriously impoverished mother.

She was, of course, invited everywhere, and went everywhere. No Washington gathering was complete without Mrs. Madison, the virtual Queen Mother of society. Dolley was always delighted to accept invitations, but she could only afford to entertain guests once a month. But everybody came! No matter that her refreshments were simple. No matter that the once great lady-of-fashion still wore the old turban hats of yesteryear. Her delightful presence was sufficient to make every occasion an event.  Assorted great-nieces were invited and delighted to stay with their Great Aunt Dolley. The young girls had the enviable distinction of being under the wing of the one woman who could introduce them to every eligible young man in the capital. She had the reputation of being a superb matchmaker.

When she died at eighty-one, she was given the largest funeral ever before seen in Washington. She was a National Treasure, and everybody knew it. She was also the last link to the Founding Fathers, all now long deceased. She had known them all very well. And they loved her too.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961 – William Morrow & Co., 1990
  • Anthony, Katharine – Dolly Madison: Her Life and Times, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1949
  • Moore,Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography , McGraw Hill, 1979



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Mrs. Adams, Dr. Physick, and Her Unmentionable Problem

Louisa Catherine Adams: A Brief Medical History

Louisa Adams

Louisa Catherine Adams was the well educated and cultured wife of John Quincy Adams.


Louisa Catherine Adams (1775-1852), London born and Paris educated, was raised to be exactly what she would become: a perfect consort for a man of distinction. John Quincy Adams was the US minister to the Netherlands and the son of the Vice President of the United States when he met and married her. His potential distinction was certain, but marital felicity was not.  JQ was a cold, controlling man.  Emotional stress always takes its toll.

Add to this low-grade strain was Louisa’ fifteen pregnancies. She miscarried chronically, sometimes fairly late in her term. There was a stillborn. Another died before she was a year old. Only three sons would be born and live to maturity. It took its toll as well.

When Louisa was in her late thirties, she spent the better part of five years in St. Petersburg, Russia, where her diplomat husband served as Minister Plenipotentiary. Russian winters, then as now, are legendary. The cold and dampness in poorly heated accommodations took its own toll. Louisa would blame her subsequent chronic “rheumatism” on the horrible Russian weather.

Then there was her “unmentionable” problem.

Dr. Philip Syng Physick

Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837) was a Philadelphia doctor, whose prominent family had sent their promising young son to London and Edinburgh, Scotland for his medical education, said to be the finest in Europe.  Then he returned to Philadelphia to begin a medical and surgical practice, which included teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

The eccentric (and oddly-named) Dr. Philip Physick was considered the finest physician in America in the early nineteenth century.

In those early decades of the nineteenth century, anesthesia was still in the distant future.  So was general sanitation.  Bleeding was still a time-honored cure-all.  If a doctor, and particularly a surgeon, was to enjoy high distinction, it would be because of his skill and adeptness with the knife.  Sharp instruments were a plus; so was the surgeon’s speed in repairing or removing the affected problem.

Dr. Physick’s practice was varied and far-reaching for its time.  He designed and crafted any number of surgical instruments and scalpels himself, in various sizes and shapes, to be used for specific anatomical purposes.  He experimented with medicines and potions, and is said to be the first to use carbonated water for medicinal purposes (soda pop!).  His approach was far ahead of his time.

Dr. Physick is credited with being the first to use carbonated water (soda) for medicinal purposes.

Although he was a cold man of regimented habits, he was still considered the finest doctor in the country, albeit eccentric, anti-social and perhaps downright peculiar.

The “Unmentionable” Louisa Connection

Louisa Catherine Adams shared an “unmentionable” problem with her brother Thomas Johnson – a private ailment usually spoken of in whispers: “piles,” or hemorrhoids, which are essentially varicose veins of the rectum. It may well have been a genetic or familial condition, since there is evidence that several in the Johnson family were afflicted.   In Louisa’s case, it was undoubtedly exacerbated by her fifteen pregnancies. In addition to the discomfort and often severe pain from this condition, it could be seriously complicated by an impacted bowel and inability to evacuate.

In extreme cases there was only one treatment: surgery. It was a completely new approach being pioneered by Dr. Physick. It was a complicated procedure, particularly since there was no anesthesia. Ether and chloroform were still decades away.  Topical and/or alternative measures were a century away.  So was basic hand-washing or instrument boiling.

Nevertheless, Louisa Adams, her brother and her fifteen-year-old niece made the trip to Philadelphia in 1821, where the surgeon confirmed that Thomas Johnson was in dire need of surgery.  Discovering that Mrs. A. had the same “delicate condition,” she was advised to undergo the surgery as well.  But Thomas Johnson’s problem was far more intense, so he became the guinea pig.

Thomas Johnson by Chester Harding, 1820

Thomas Johnson, Louisa’s younger brother, also suffered very badly from the same “delicate condition” as Louisa. His case was more severe.

At Dr. Physick’s recommendation, Louisa and her niece rented rooms at a boarding house to prepare him for his surgery, and to help him recuperate.  The doctor insisted on arduous attention to his food preparation, chopping and grinding and boiling a particular kind of moss into a bad-tasting-but-supposedly-therapudic soup which he needed to eat for several days prior to surgery.  In those days before food processors and blenders, its preparation took hours. It would be weeks before he was ready for his operation.

Louisa Adams Goes Under the Knife 

When Thomas Johnson recovered completely, he was thrilled with the outcome.  The quality of his life had vastly improved.  Thus encouraged, Louisa decided to subject herself to the same procedure.   Once again she and her niece checked into the boarding house that Dr. Physick recommended (and where he performed the surgery, by the way) and prepared herself to go under the knife.  She and her niece chopped and ground and boiled the moss-soup for her to drink for several days prior to the operation.

For delicacy’s sake, Mrs. Adams was not required to completely undress.  She merely removed the necessary clothing.  Then her hands and feet were tied down, and she laid on her side exposing the particular orifice, in this case, her derriere.  In lieu of any anesthetics, she was given a hefty dose of laudanum (a strong opiate), and steeled herself for the pain that would follow. She remained awake, albeit “la-la’d” throughout the operation.

Dr. Physick was experienced in this type of surgery; Louisa Adams’ problem was also not as severe as her brother’s.  The ordeal did not take as long, nor was the recovery period as lengthy.  And happily for her, she enjoyed the same results of her “unmentionable” surgery.  She was so pleased that she asked her husband to pay Dr. Physick $100 above what his bill called for.



Nagel, Paul C. – Descent from Glory – Oxford University Press, 1983

Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – 1980, McGraw Hill



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President John Tyler Elopes!

John Tyler was a man of Firsts.  The First Vice President-to-President, the First President to remarry, and the President with the most children – fourteen.

The President

John Tyler was the first Vice President who became President upon the death of his predecessor.

John Tyler became President in April, 1841, only one month after William Henry Harrison was inaugurated President. Harrison, nearing seventy, had died suddenly, making John Tyler the first Vice President to assume office upon the death of a President.

Letitia Christian, Tyler’s first wife, was an invalid for several years before she was First Lady. Little is known about her, other than bearing seven children.

At fifty-one, Tyler arrived at the White House with his stroke-crippled wife and seven children between eleven and twenty-five.  Within a year, his wife died, and a daughter-in-law subbed for hosting duties.  John Tyler, a Virginian, was known for his southern hospitality.

After a respectful mourning period, the lonely President cast an appreciative eye on Miss Julia Gardiner, a glamorous young woman thirty years his junior.

The Rose

Julia Gardiner was a New Yorker, very pretty, very cultured, very charming, and very very rich.   A few years earlier, she had been involved in an 1840-style scandal! A New York merchant used her likeness (perhaps with her permission), on his advertising circulars, identifying her as “Miss Julia Gardiner, the Rose of Long Island.” Her wealthy and socially upper-crust parents were horrified, and whisked the family off to Europe for two years, to let the talk die down.

Julia Gardiner, who would become the second Mrs. John Tyler, was thirty years younger than her husband – and younger than three of his children!

When they returned, since she and her siblings were of marriageable age, her father took them to Washington. Having hobnobbed with the rich, powerful and titled in Rome, London and Paris, the Gardiners decided to do likewise in Washington. They settled in for the social season and left their cards everywhere – including the White House. As expected, invitations poured in – including one to a Tyler reception, where the President was much taken with “The Rose.”

Julia was only twenty-three, and was being pursued by a bevy of would-be wooers, all old enough to be her father. She declined their proposals. The President of the United States, however, was a different story. He pursued and wooed, and she declined. But he persisted. She wavered.  The POTUS presented a heady possibility.

The Proposal

Then came a disaster. Julia and her father had been invited by the President to join a party cruise down the Potomac. The gunboat Princeton had been fitted with a new cannon which would be demonstrated to some three hundred Tyler’s guests.   All went well. The demonstrations were successful.

The explosion on the gunship Princeton killed several people, including Julia’s father, David Gardiner.

Later in the afternoon, as the ladies went below for a luncheon, the gun was demonstrated once more. This time, it misfired, killing several onlookers, including David Gardiner, Julia’s father.

“The Rose” was understandably distraught, and the solicitous President plied her with condolence notes and flowers.  Then he sent invitations to appropriately private luncheons and teas. Julia, a daddy’s girl who had just lost her daddy, became more receptive to the President’s kind attentions. He was, after all, still slim and attractive at fifty-four.   This time, when he proposed, she accepted, but only if her mother consented. Mrs. Gardiner, who was even richer than her husband had been, did not consent. She did not think Tyler was wealthy enough to support the Gardiner lifestyle. She had a point. Tyler was comfortably well-off, but hardly in the Gardiner class. But President Tyler was nothing if not persistent. He had persevered with Julia and would now persevere with her formidable mother. It paid off. He finally won her approval.

The Elopement

So in a few months, the President quietly slipped out of Washington with one son and only one naval escort, and came to New York. He checked into a fashionable hotel, asked for the manager, and proceeded to place the hotel and its staff in immediate lockdown.   No one was allowed to enter or leave. Tyler did not want his presence known, nor did he want speculation as to his purpose. The next morning, after he released all his “hostages” and shook hands with everyone, he went to the Church of the Ascension, where he and his bride were married in a small private ceremony. Then they went to the Gardiner town house for the wedding breakfast. Later, the President and the new First Lady drove in an open carriage down Broadway, where they were indeed recognized, and the purpose surmised. The news, of course, spread like wildfire.

Why Elope?

The “second” batch of Tyler children grew up at Sherwood Forest, Tyler’s Virginia home along the James River.

So why the elopement? The reason the President usually gave was understandable. It had only been a few months since David Gardiner had died. Julia was still in mourning and the proprieties must be observed.

Then, of course, it could be conjectured that John Tyler did not wish to incur “cradle robbing” snickers and gossip.  Finally, there were the seven Tyler children (three of whom were older than their new step-mother). They had not been told of the marriage, and it was big news to them, and not particularly welcome. It might also be conjectured that their inheritance might be dissipated should the new marriage be fruitful.  A legitimate concern.

As it was, the snickers and gossip abounded anyway.  The President was called either “Lucky John,” or “that old fool.” Turns out “Lucky John” prevailed. His second marriage was a happy one. It was also very fruitful, to the dismay of his “first” family. Seven more little Tylers would make an appearance, the last one, when Tyler was nearly seventy.   With fourteen children who reached adulthood, Tyler was the most “fathered” of all our Presidents.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Seager, Robert III – And Tyler Too, McGraw Hill, 1963
  • Truman, Margaret – First Ladies, Random House, 1995


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Washington and Lincoln: The Weems Connection

George Washington died in 1799, ten years before Abraham Lincoln was born.

GW: A Symbol for his Age

The glorious image of George Washington would be revered for generations after his death.

When George Washington died a few weeks before his sixty-eighth birthday, he was a towering figure, arguably the most important and respected man in the country.   His death shocked the young nation he helped found.  Eulogies filled the newspapers and pulpits. All the “old soldiers” of the Revolution gathered to mourn and commemorate his passing.

George Washington had done more than merely lead soldiers in battle. He had helped to shepherd a country into being.   He “retired” to private citizenship voluntarily, only to be recruited back into the forefront as the first president of the very new United States. He served for eight years, the last four, reluctantly. Then he peacefully (and gratefully) turned the office over to his duly elected successor, and again retired.

It had never been done before, this “voluntary” transfer of high power.

It was the stuff of legends.

Mason Weems, Itinerant Preacher

Mason Locke Weems was an itinerant preacher and sometimes book-seller. He made a fortune from Washington’s life.

In 1800, the year after George Washington’s death, the population of the United States stood at just over four million people. There were fifteen states and the country was pushing westward. In those early frontier times, established churches were a luxury that few towns could support. Thus during the first decade of the nineteenth century, a wave of evangelism began to appear, termed as the Great Awakening. Itinerant preachers, some trained, most self-proclaimed, roamed the country, performing the christening, marriage and funeral rituals, and spreading the gospel. Then they moved on to the next town to do the same.

Mason Locke Weems was one of those ministers, known to history as “Parson” Weems. Some time during that first decade after George Washington’s death, he decided to write a book about the Great Citizen-General. It would be the first “American” biography, and the first attempt at re-creating the life of the illustrious man.

An early illustration of young George Washington and the “cherry tree story.”

Modern historians and biographers either snicker or shudder at the mention of the good Parson and his whole-cloth invention of young George, his hatchet and his father’s ex-cherry tree, which has become Weems’ greatest claim to fame.

But for several years of so-called “research,” Weems met and interviewed scores of people who claimed to know Washington, including veterans of the Revolution who were happy to share their reminiscences of their Commander-in-Chief. By that time, those memories were thirty-some years old, and, as now, often were muddled or enhanced with time. Then too, the criteria for historical research and writing was limited to a florid way with the vernacular, which Weems had in abundance. Truth and reliability mattered little, and the essence of myth and legend mixed freely with fact and went unchallenged.

The Grant Wood 1939 depiction of young George Washington and the “cherry tree story.”

Weems was not a bad man. He was a preacher of sorts, devoted to preaching “the good” of man. And who was the epitome of the “best of men” then? George Washington. His virtues (then and now) were real and unassailable. His honesty and character were unquestioned. More importantly, those qualities were considered worthy of emulation. “Teaching” the next generation to emulate the glorious George Washington was uppermost in Parson Weems’ mind. And for centuries upon centuries, one of the character-teaching tools were Aesop’s fables, with a moral to every story. And the moral, according to the Parson, was that George Washington was the epitome of virtue and honesty. And a little story about the honest child who became an honest man presented a moral to be embraced.

So Weems wrote his book and “The Life of George Washington” was published to huge success. It lasted for decades. Generations of children learned to revere the first President from Weems’ account: It was written down and published, therefore, it must be so.

Abraham Lincoln: Reader

Abraham Lincoln, by his own account, had perhaps a year’s schooling all told, which consisted of a few weeks here and there. Whatever he learned was through his own efforts. His parents were illiterate. Also, by his own account, Lincoln was a poor boy with little access to the tools of learning.

A common illustration-depiction of young Abraham Lincoln reading by the light of the fire

The story goes that when he was perhaps twelve or thirteen, Lincoln, the self-taught reader, borrowed a book from a neighbor. The book was damaged and Lincoln labored for two weeks to pay the neighbor for the book. This is a true story. Lincoln himself was known to tell it.

That book was Parson Weems’ “The Life of George Washington,” and it made a huge impression on the young Lincoln. It was likely the first complete book he had ever read. Whether he believed every word of it is open to conjecture, but that is not unlikely, either.

What Lincoln did believe, however, were exactly the concepts that Weems attempted to portray: Washington’s honesty (i.e. the very purpose of the cherry tree legend), his high moral character, his leadership both military and political, his sense of duty, and his devotion to his men and his country.

Those were the very qualities Lincoln would strive to attain himself.

The Value of Legends

Myths and legends have been around for millennia.  Ancient civilizations are filled with them. Bible stories are frequently constructed in that regard. Nearly every age has its romantic mystique of a real person, from Alexander the Great to John F. Kennedy.

What purpose do such “stories” have? Historians today try hard to demystify our “heroes,” in an effort to debunk them. They water an anecdote into a footnote, creating a disdain for history as a subject itself. It merely becomes a series of hard-to-remember almanac facts instead of the accomplishments of real people. Legends are indeed glorified, but a glorification based on some substance.  They are memorable far longer than the almanac facts that are quickly forgotten.

There is nothing wrong with a little glory. Or a little story.  Say that it is a “story,” but tell it!  We are always in dire need of good role models. Abraham Lincoln found his role model via his introduction to an exaggerated George Washington, but he would remember it always, and treasure the example.  It did not seem to hurt him a bit.


Davis, William C. – Lincoln’s Men – The Free Press, 1999


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The Dying General: Grant’s Final Campaign

   Ulysses S. Grant was unquestionably a great and able general, but he was no businessman.

The General’s Last Hurrah

When Ulysses S. Grant retired from two terms as President of the United States in early 1877, he was the most famous man in the world. There had been serious financial scandals during his administration involving cabinet members and even his personal staff. While Grant was never involved in any misconduct, naughtiness was done on his watch. He was tainted. But he was still popular.

Julia and Ulysses

Ulysses and Julia Grant were a particularly happy couple. She was his devoted companion through good times and some very bad times.

Partially to give himself a rest from the near-daily reports of malfeasance, and partly because it was a novelty for him and his wife Julia, they decided to travel.  Grant had never been a wealthy man, but he had accumulated some money and could finance his two-year sojourn around the world. It was a party of three-plus. Ulysses, Julia and their teenaged son Jesse – and a journalist John Russell Young, who would crank out thousands (and perhaps millions) of words to provide a running commentary of the Great General in the Great Capitals. It was printed regularly, since Grant was being hosted wherever he went, by Kings, Queens, Emperors and other ruling members of all the important places in the world. He was still front page news.

At the end of two years, partly because they were getting antsy, and mostly because they were running out of money, they came home, only to find that Grant was more popular than ever. Perhaps popular enough for a third term. He made a lukewarm effort in that direction, but it failed.

He was fifty-eight years old. He still needed a job, and Grant, out of uniform, had never been good in the “job market.”

Former President Ulysses S. Grant made a half-hearted attempt to regain the white House in 1880. He was fifty-eight and needed a job.

The Great General is a Financier

General Grant had been a great favorite of the rich and famous since his rise to battlefield stardom. While they may have gravitated to him early in his rise because he was “rising,” they grew to truly like him as a man, and perhaps in their own way, considered him a national treasure.

Post-Civil War, there were very few laws on the books about public servants accepting private gifts. Out-and-out bribery was one thing, a box of cigars was another thing, but lavish gifts, such as houses or fine carriages and teams of horses was not considered a blatant no-no. And when the givers of such gifts had names like Vanderbilt and Whitney, they knew how to maneuver around technicalities.  And technically, Grant was now a private citizen.

So they were happy to provide a town house for the former President in New York City, where he could be available to party with them. But he still needed a job.

It was his son USG, Jr., always called Buck, who suggested the partnership with Ferdinand Ward, a Wall Street so-called “genius.” General Grant readily admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about finances, but Ward said it did not matter. He would be the one to manage the financial end of things, and General Grant could be the outside “face” of things. He was hoping that the former soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic who had trusted their old commander with their lives, would now be willing to trust him with their money. They did. They did bigtime! With General Grant’s name on the letterhead, money for investments came pouring into the firm, and for two years, handsome dividends were distributed regularly. Ulysses S. Grant was now a rich man. His grown sons had invested in the firm, and they were now rich men. Even Julia invested some of her “pin” money and was doing nicely.

Then the whole thing plunged to its death. Ward had concocted a Ponzi-like scheme (like Bernie Medoff) which is basically a Borrow-from-Peter-to-Pay-Paul affair. Then he cajoled Grant to borrow a substantial amount of money, supposedly as a bridge loan, from his pal, William Vanderbilt. Then Ward immediately fled the country, leaving Grant holding the proverbial bag.

Ulysses S. Grant: A Man of Character

Last Grant fam photo

Grant loved nothing more than being surrounded by his family – and they were all there during his last years.

Dying Grant

One of the last photographs of General Grant, as he was completing the final edits of his memoirs.

Ulysses Grant was guilty of nothing, except perhaps of poor judgment in business partners. He insisted that he would honor all the company’s debts. If being financially ruined with his reputation in tatters wasn’t enough, the sixty-two year old General learned that he had incurable cancer of the throat. He turned over all his possessions, including deeds to his houses, his gifts-from-royalty, and even his Civil War memorabilia to pay his creditors. He was virtually penniless.

The iconic Civil War general had been approached on several occasions to write his Civil War memoirs, and had always declined, claiming he was not a writer. But other veterans, from privates to generals, were penning their reminiscences and making small fortunes. Grant needed the money, and Mark Twain, who had a substantial interest in a publishing company, offered him an enormous advance. The General agreed. He did not want to leave his family in debt or in want.

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant were sold out by subscription even before they were released. It made a fortune for Grant’s heirs.

With his usual intensity of effort, he plunged into recollecting those campaigns and battles of a quarter century earlier. He corresponded with many of his old colleagues, reviewing their clarification and memories. He pored over the old maps and the old orders. He spent hours at his desk, despite the increasing pain from his cancer. He refused all pain-relieving medication so that his mind would not be dulled. The final galleys were finished only days before he died. When Twain told the dying man that the advance sale had topped $300,000, Grant was amazed.

Older Julia

Grant had been concerned that his wife would be left in want. He needn’t have worried.

He may have believed that he “was not a writer,” but Mark Twain (who was a pretty fair one) insisted that the writing was excellent. Bruce Catton, the late historian of the Civil War, once commented that Grant had “the gift of clarity.” In the century-plus years since Grant’s Memoirs were published, nearly every military historian has rated them as some of the finest war memorials every written.

And Mrs. Grant became a very wealthy widow.



Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press

Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press

Young, John Russell – Around the World with General Grant – 1879, American News




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Grover Cleveland’s Scandal: “Where’s My Pa?”

Presidential candidate Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child.   It was true.  Maybe.

Grover Cleveland: The Bachelor Candidate

formal portrait

Grouchy-faced and pudgy, Grover Cleveland would never be anyone’s beau ideal of a romantic figure.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was a forty-seven year old bachelor when the Democrats chose him as their presidential candidate in 1884. People said that Cleveland did only two things, but he did them both extremely well: he worked, and he ate. “Working” accounted for his successful business law practice and his sterling reputation in Buffalo, New York.  The eating part was verified by the 300 lbs. that was packed on to his 5’9” frame.

If he wasn’t working – or eating – he was socializing with the fellows who gathered at the local firehouse to play cards or smoke cigars or plan their next fishing trip. He was definitely not a “parlor” guy. His manners were gruff.  There was little about him that was sophisticated, cultured or courtly – or handsome. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes  called him “a brute with women.”

Grover Cleveland: The Buffalo Politician

Buffalo, New York was the state’s second larges city after the Civil War. The Erie Canal had made it a huge shipping center.

Despite his rough exterior, a bipartisan group of citizens approached Grover Cleveland in the early 1880s offering to support him as Mayor of Buffalo.  New York’s second-largest city had been filled with corruption even before the Civil War.  Cleveland’s reputation for honesty and getting-things-done made him the perfect choice. He had considered the idea of a political career fifteen years earlier, but he did not advance quickly, and opted to devote his energies to his law practice.

But this time, the Mayoralty of Buffalo was an easy victory for him – especially with strong bipartisan support from the town’s finest citizens. He ran and won. Then he began to clean up the graft and bribery, the bid-rigging, the kickbacks and general vice.

The State of New York took notice, and elected him Governor. Cleveland proceeded to do likewise for the State. He was a force to be reckoned with: a viable reform candidate for the Presidency in 1884. Despite his unfamiliar national resume, Grover the Good became the Democratic choice.

Grover Cleveland: The “Pa” Story:

Democratic candidate Cleveland had been nominated because of his flawless reputation – until a sleazy Buffalo newspaper printed a story that he had fathered an illegitimate child a decade earlier. Other newspapers got wind of the story and created a scandal of it. Pastors and priests all over the country decried the liaison from the pulpits. Needless to say, everyone expected Cleveland to vociferously deny such a monstrous charge. He did not.

He told his campaign managers to “tell the truth” – a mantra that he would always follow. And the truth was this: some years earlier, he had been acquainted with a widowed seamstress named Maria Halpin. Little more than a prostitute, Mrs. Halpin was also acquainted with several of Cleveland’s friends. When there was to be a child, Grover Cleveland volunteered to accept responsibility. While he was never sure of his paternity, he was the only bachelor amongst Maria’s intimates and did not wish to have his married friends embarrassed. He was also in a position to afford financial assistance – and even tried to set Mrs. Halpin up in a dressmaking business. Despite Cleveland’s monetary assistance, she proved to be an unfit mother, and when the boy was still small, Cleveland had him placed in suitable foster care. Some say he grew up to be a professional man; some say he died when he was a child. Nothing has ever been ascertained fully.

Cartoons of the Cleveland-Halpin “scandal” filled the newspapers.

The intrusion into his private life galled Candidate Cleveland no end, and indeed, any intrusion into Cleveland’s personal life would irritate him profusely, but he satisfied the electorate – and in particular, their wives. He had admitted the truth of the affair. He also was able to document his financial responsibility to the woman and child in question. Now the pastors and priests had another field day –those vehemently opposed to the situation, and those who were more tolerant, commending him for his honorable actions. Everybody had an opinion.

The Republican newspapers also had a field day with their taunts of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?”

The Election of 1884: The Republican Scandals

Senator James G. Blaine was no stranger to scandal either – but his scandals were mostly financial.

Ever since the founding fathers, personal and political scandals have been a part of elections. The Republican candidate in 1884 was Senator James G. Blaine – a man who had been in the political spotlight since the Civil War, and was very well known throughout the country. But he was tainted.

More than a decade earlier, he had been mysteriously involved in a complicated financial fraud and accused of accepting considerable sums in stock shares from a questionable railroad consortium called the Credit Mobilier. The scandal dragged on for years. The charges against Blaine were never completely proven – but the inferences were never completely put to rest, either.   There was enough smoke, if not for fire, certainly enough to make a stink.

The Democratic newspapers countered with their own slogan: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.”

It was a nasty campaign all the way around. And there had not been a Democratic President since James Buchanan, nearly thirty years earlier.

Grover Cleveland Wins the Election of 1884:

It was a squeaker. Out of nearly 10,000,000 votes cast, the difference between Cleveland the winner and Blaine the loser, was less than 25,000. It was even close in electoral votes: Cleveland received 219, and Blaine received 182. (There were only 38 states at that time).

Now the scandalous slogan would be turned back to the Republicans: “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?…. Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha!”

And a year and a half later, President Grover Cleveland, at age 49, would marry and go on to have five legitimate children.


  • Brodsky, Alyn – Grover Cleveland, A Study in Character – St. Martin’s Press, 2000
  • Dunlap, Annette – Frank – State University of NY/Excelsior – 2009
  • Jeffers, H. Paul, – An Honest President – William Morrow, 2000
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