Presidents and Christmas Trees

The National Christmas Tree today.

A “traditional” Christmas tree, one that is brought indoors and decorated, is a German custom.

The Early Trees

While a Christmas tree of sorts has been around since pagan times, beginning in the early nineteenth century, it became a popular German tradition to cut an evergreen tree of some kind, bring it indoors and decorate it with fruits and pine cones and berries. In time, handcrafted toys and ornaments of varying types and materials were added, and despite the fire hazard, lighted candles were added as well.

Victoria and Albert

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree.

The custom truly began to take hold shortly after Queen Victoria of England married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. He had fondly remembered the Christmas tree, hitherto little known in England, and installed one at Windsor Castle. By the end of the 1840s, when an illustration of the Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor appeared in the London News, the  tradition took off like gangbusters.

The Early Presidential Trees

franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce, 14th President.

It gets a little fuzzy trying to pinpoint which sitting President had the very first Christmas tree. There is some indication that President John Tyler had one in the early 1840s, but that may be a stretch. There is some less-stretchy indication that President Franklin Pierce had a Christmas tree in his private quarters of the White House in 1853 or 54. The custom had become fairly popular by then, and legend has it that First Lady Jane Pierce had been so devastated by the tragic death of their eleven-year-old son, that the President installed the tree to “cheer her up.” Maybe. But it is still a nice story.

BHarrison familly

23rd President Benjamin Harrison and family.

The first real documented Christmas tree installed upstairs in the White House was during President Benjamin Harrison’s administration. Even then, the exact year is iffy. It is said that the President’s little grandchildren were thrilled!

After that, there is a long gap for varying reasons, mostly since Christmas was considered a family (private) holiday, and sometimes included the First Family being out of town for the holidays. The next indication of a public Christmas tree inside the White House is not until the Hoover Administration in 1929, at which time electric lights were used. After that, Christmas trees were again contained in the private (family) rooms of the White House until the Kennedy Administration. And after that, it became a national Blue Room tradition, with a life of its own.

Every First Lady from Jacqueline Kennedy until the present, selects a “theme” for the decorations, and “donated” items come from all over the country – whether they are creations by school children or professional artists and craftsmen. A dozen states vie for the “honor” of supplying the tree (or trees) to the White House. Turning on the White House Christmas tree even becomes a reason for a television special.

President Coolidge and the National Christmas Tree Tradition

There is a huge living fir tree on the White House Ellipse (replaced on a couple of occasions as needed), assigned as the National Christmas Tree for more than half a century.

It is a little known fact that the “official” decorated tree began as a Community Christmas Tree, encouraged by the Washington DC Community Center Department and the DC Public Schools. According to the National Park Service, Lucretia Walker Hardy, the acting Director of the Community Center Department, wrote to President Coolidge’s secretary, asking that the Community tree be located on White House grounds. She wrote “It seems that the use of the White House grounds for this Christmas Tree will give the sentiment and the exercises a national character.”

President Calvin Coolidge and the first “national” Christmas tree.

Coincidental to that event, Thomas Ormsbee, of the Society for Electrical Development, was also contacting the White House for a similar project – only his purpose was to advance the use of electric lights on Christmas trees.

Interestingly enough, the first tree was not a “live” tree, but a “cut” tree, given as a gift by Paul Moody, the president of Middlebury, College in Vermont, President Coolidge’s home state. With a little gentle lobbying by Vermont Senator Frank L. Greene, the matter was escalated.

The tree lighting ceremony was packed for Christmas 1945

It was 1923, and President and Mrs. Coolidge were the White House occupants, having inherited the office when President Harding died some months earlier. When the President’s secretary took the Christmas Tree “request” to the First Family, Mrs. Coolidge announced that she had already approved a caroling event on White House grounds, and only wanted one event held inside the gated area. As an alternative, she suggested the Ellipse be used, and there it was placed, and electrified by Coolidge.

The Eisenhowers

The Christmas Tree found a permanent home on the Ellipse during the Eisenhower Administration.

The following year, the “ceremony” was moved to Sherman Park, near the East Gate of the White House. It was the first time a “living” tree, a Norway Spruce, was used as the National Tree, a donation from the American Forestry Service. On December 24, 1924, in a very brief ceremony, President Coolidge became the first President to “officially” press a button lighting the red-white-and-green electric lights. Although the event was conceived and promoted as the National Community Christmas Tree, the program listed it as the “National Christmas Tree” for the first time.

By 1925, lighting the National Christmas Tree (despite whatever formal names it was given) became a major event. Congressmen and cabinet members attended the ceremony, along with hundreds of Washingtonians, including school children. The US Marine Band performed, it was carried live on the radio, and the program ended with The Star Spangled Banner.

The venue remained in Sherman Park for the next ten years. Then, due to landscaping changes on the grounds, the tree-site was moved to Lafayette Park, where it remained as the location until it was moved back to the Ellipse during the Eisenhower Administration.

The rest, as they say, is history.


The White House: An Historic Guide – White House Historical Assn. – 1973

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Pierce | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theodore Roosevelt: Asthmatic

college-age TR

Youthful Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt could arguably be the poster boy for asthmatic children.

Asthma In General: Today

Asthma is a medical condition that affects the lungs and airways, making breathing difficult. It can vary between a mild, occasional and annoying problem, or, for some, it can be life-threatening. Either way, it requires a physician’s care, and can be effectively treated with a variety of medications.

Small children, perhaps because of their immature pulmonary systems, are commonly afflicted with asthma. The good news is that most children outgrow the severe symptoms by puberty. Modern medicines make it possible for children to enjoy a happy and active childhood. There are many Olympic and professional athletes who suffered from severe asthma during their youth.

But even today, asthma never really “goes away” entirely. Symptoms may subside for years at a time, but lifelong vigilance is essential.

Asthma: Circa 1860

Theodore Roosevelt as a small boy.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was an asthmatic child at a time when it was a fearful disease. Few things are as frightening for a parent as watching their young child literally gasping for breath – and being powerless to help.

Mid-nineteenth century doctors were well aware of asthma. The diagnosis was relatively easy; successful treatments and medicines were decades in the future – and even today, can be elusive.

Childhood asthma was a vicious cycle in the nineteenth century: a weakened child was its victim, and the disease further weakened the child. Parents were usually gently told not to expect a long life for their asthmatic offspring.

Theodore Sr. and Theodore Jr.

TR was a frail boy until puberty.

The Roosevelt family of New York City were New York Knickerbockers, a term used to describe some of the (mostly Dutch) settlers who came to New York in the mid-seventeenth century, and thrived.

Theodore Roosevelt Senior (and yes, our TR was Junior!), was a wealthy descendent of a Dutch patroon. He and his equally patrician (albeit Georgian) wife, Martha Bullock, had four children, Theodore Jr. being the second offspring and first son.

From earliest childhood, “Teedie”, as he was called, suffered from asthma, gasping and wheezing for breath. The elder Roosevelts were duly advised that their son would not be likely to reach adulthood.

TR with his brother Elliott, his sister Corinne, and his future wife Edith Carow.

For an asthmatic, sleeping is an enormous problem – even propped up in a sitting position. Theodore’s father carried him in his arms, walking up and down the hallways of their brownstone, trying to quiet the spasms. If the weather was mild, he sometimes ordered his carriage at midnight, hoping that the fresh air and gentle jog would rock his little boy into some comforting sleep.

TR Junior did not respond readily to any of the conventional (and frequently detrimental if not downright peculiar) remedies.


Theodore Roosevelt Senior

One medical treatment called for the patient drinking copious amounts of black coffee, which pumped huge amounts of caffeine into a five year old. TR would become a mega coffee drinker for the rest of his life. And his frenetic energies are legendary.

Another so-called remedy was to have the little boy smoke big black cigars. It is hard to imagine anything worse for an asthmatic than tobacco smoke, but Teedie was encouraged to puff away. As an adult, TR never smoked anything.

As a result, he became a weak and somewhat timid child, sedentary and unable to participate in the rough-and-tumble activities of normal boyhood. His prestigious intellect and curiosity was instead turned toward natural history, and he amassed broad and varied collections of leaves, rocks, insects, birds, small animals, etc. By twelve, he had become a bonafide taxidermist.

And the fact that he was also nearsighted wasn’t helping matters, either.

The Turning Point

Teenaged TR

Vigorous exercise helped TR’s health, and became a part of his strenuous lifestyle.

When TR was about twelve, his father said, “You have the mind, but you haven’t the body. You must make your body.”

Theodore Senior accordingly turned an upstairs room into a gymnasium, with barbells and weights, mats and pulleys and a punching bag. He also engaged an off-duty New York policeman as personal trainer to help his son develop his athletic skills, and most importantly, his muscles and stamina. That it would help his confidence and psyche was a by-product and fringe benefit.

Between natural puberty and a substantial increase in his chest expansion, the severity and frequency of the asthmatic attacks abated.

About the same time, a pair of spectacles corrected the nearsightedness, and clarified his world.

Camping and hunting outings in Maine broadened his horizons in ways no one could have ever predicted. The fresh air did him wondrous good, both physically and mentally, and the great outdoors became a lifelong passion.

By eighteen, Theodore Roosevelt had matured into a vigorous young man that no one would dare call “weakling.”

He walked, he ran, he rowed and rode, he boxed, he hunted, he became a fair marksman, and never seemed to know when to stop.

Theodore Roosevelt about the time he was 26.

The Strenuous Life

Theodore Roosevelt’s father died when TR was still in college, but the effect of the elder man had a lifelong imprint on his son’s life.

TR only lived till sixty, but he packed several lifetimes into those years. He churned through the New York Assembly, became a cowboy in the Dakotas, sired six children, embraced progressive political policies, learned jujitsu and tennis, whipped political Washington into a frenzy of activity and served in sub-cabinet positions and found time to write a bunch of books – all before he was thirty-five. At the same time, he maintained his upper-crust credentials and socialized effortlessly with the creme of society.

Then he became a soldier, made his battle-reputation on San Juan Hill, catapulted into the Governorship of New York, and the White House. Then he became a big game hunter in Africa, and an explorer in the jungles of the Amazon.

The asthma remained reasonably dormant, and flared up only on occasion. But Theodore Roosevelt never stopped to take a breath.


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

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

Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Theodore Roosevelt | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fierce Glory: A Book Review

In recent years, there has been a welcome addition to the world of history writing: narrative history, i.e. Making history “readable” without jeopardizing the factual.

A Fierce Glory: Antietam – The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery, by Justin Martin

Author Justin Martin has chosen to write A FIERCE GLORY: Antietam – The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery, his eminently readable history of the Battle of Antietam as a “novel”. This in no way dilutes the thrust or importance of the battle, or the issues, or those intimately involved. It merely allows him some latitude in the telling.

The Battle of Sharpsburg, MD (South) or Antietam (North) took place on September 17, 1862, only weeks after the Second Battle of Bull Run, another debacle for the Union, and only two months following the withdrawal of the Union troops from the Virginia Peninsula, despite their overwhelming manpower.

Having relieved the arrogant General George McClellan-with-the-“slows” after the Peninsula Campaign, President Lincoln had appointed General John Pope, an incompetent braggart to conduct another debacle at Second Bull Run, relieved him, and once again reluctantly turned to McClellan. It had not been a good year for the Union, and a particularly bad one for Lincoln, still mourning for his 11-year-old son who died in February.

The thrust of the book, and indeed, what gives it its “soul,” is the interlocking, and sometimes contrapuntal strategies and goals of North, South, McClellan, Lee, and overwhelmingly, Lincoln. Martin argues that the generals were neither clueless nor accidentally engaged, as some historians have purported. They knew exactly what was going on, and for the most part, they knew why.

The South, having fought and won several battles, had recently appointed Robert E. Lee as its top commander. Their strategy was direct and ambitious. Fight and win a battle in the North (Maryland), continue North (Pennsylvania), hope foreign countries (England and France) will recognize them as the separate country they wanted to be, provide financial and perhaps military aid, and/or, at least insist upon becoming the brokers for a negotiated peace.

The Northern strategy was much simpler. “No.” Keep the South from “invading” the North; win battles (obviously not as easy as it sounded) and prevent foreign interference in any way.

Lincoln also had a card up his sleeve. As early as the Peninsula campaign, he began to consider the political and militarily strategic efficacy of emancipating the slaves in the South. England and France, who had banned slavery decades earlier, would never ally themselves with a slave holding country. But that too, was not as easy as it sounded. Most Union soldiers had signed on to save the Union, and cared little about freeing the slaves.

Lincoln had labored over that premise for several weeks, drafting and tweaking the essentials. He had brought it to his cabinet for discussion shortly after the Peninsula Campaign. All had agreed in concept and principle, but it was Secretary of State Seward who suggested that it not be made public until after a military victory, lest it appear as “a last ditch effort of the vanquished.” Lincoln thought the suggestion had merit, and waited.

Meanwhile, back to Maryland. Southerners had expected that South-ish Maryland would welcome the soldiers of Dixie. They were surprised that their welcome was cool at best.

Much has been written about the “lost” orders of General Lee being found by Union soldiers, wrapped around three cigars. Even more has been written about McClellan-with-the-slows reacting with his usual snail-like alacrity to this vital information. Martin barely mentions it.

Nevertheless, a huge battle ensues across several miles along the Antietam Creek, everyone fighting fiercely and bravely, with upwards of 14,000 casualties (North and South), making it the bloodiest one-day battle in US history. Both sides were now becoming inured to the long lists in the newspapers.

Author Martin is far more proficient at writing “personal” observations as opposed to battle scenes, thus calling it a novel serves him well. There are some nice vignettes. There are some nice anecdotes. He cannot avoid telling of the multiple attempts to cross a bridge by the hapless General Ambrose Burnside, but its description would be redundant, as he likely knows. He is much better telling about photographer Alexander Gardner, or Dr. Jonathan Letterman, two pioneering participants in the Civil War – or even Lincoln trudging wearily across the White House grounds to the War Office Telegraph Room. The reader can practically see the patience oozing out of Lincoln’s pores as he waits for clicking sounds over the wires to bring news of engagement, ground gained (or lost), and mostly casualties. McClellan was as sparing providing news as he was with providing victories.

So while the book uses Antietam as its centerpiece, it is essentially Antietam as its scenery. The book is all Lincoln and his overriding/underlying consideration of emancipation as a military strategy – and the secrecy of it, known only to a few.

Antietam was more of a “draw’ than a victory, according to most military historians. McClellan claimed it as a “great victory,” but then again, that was vintage McClellan. General Lee managed to keep most of his army intact and on the Virginia side of the Potomac so he could “invade” the North another day. But the waffling victory was better than the total losses that had preceded it, and it gave Lincoln the impetus to proclaim his intentions about emancipating the slaves, albeit with carefully crafted language to keep the border states from defecting and the overseas powers to remain overseas. It would take effect on January 1, 1863.

A Fierce Glory is a very nice read, especially for Civil War aficionados who want the people and don’t want the ponderous. I only wish Justin Martin had come up with a better title.


Martin, Justin – A FIERCE GLORY: Antietam – The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery

DaCapo Press, 2018

ISBN: 978-0306825255

Hard Cover: $17.99

Posted in American Civil War, Recommended Reading | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The First Ladies and the Doorman

Jeremiah Smith, long time White House employee.

Jerry Smith spent 35 years as a White House factotum, in a variety of positions.

The Scant Basics About Jerry

Jeremiah Smith was a free Negro, born in Anne Arundel County, MD in 1835. Very little is known of him, except that he grew into an imposing figure of manhood, with  the manners of a courtier.

During the Civil War, he served as a teamster in the Union Army, where perhaps he made the acquaintance of General Grant.

That is about as scant as we know.

Then he obtained a position in the Grant White House.

Col. William H. Crook had come into White House service toward the end of the Lincoln Administration, in the capacity of a Secret Service agent. Then, it was simply a personal bodyguard. Crook, who wrote his memoirs of nearly 50 years of service in the Presidential Mansion, gives a fine account of Jerry Smith, or “Uncle” Jerry, as he was sometimes called.

Colonel Crook Said….

Long time White House aide Col. William H. Crook

“[He was] one of the best known employees in the [WH], who began his career as Grant’s footman, and remained in the WH ever since, and still was one of the most magnificent specimens of manhood the colored race has produced. In addition to his splendid appearance, he had the manner of a courtier, and a strong personality that could not be overlooked by anyone, high or low.”

Manners and presence notwithstanding, Jerry was somewhat of a self-created caricature of a Negro servant. This is in no way demeaning, since it gained him a huge audience of admiring dignitaries as well as a huge assortment of fellow White House servants at all levels. He could turn it on and turn it off at will, making the most of all impressions.

Incredibly superstitious, according to Crook, Jerry believed in ghosts the same way a five-year-old believes in Santa Claus – and no one could tell him any different. Since the WH has always been home to benevolent ghosts, Jerry Smith had a varied assortment of stories about the origin of the creaks and groans he heard, and happy to share them with all who would listen.

“…he was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later.” He also believed they had a right to haunt their former surrounding and never questioned that right, “being perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone.”

But it is his relationships with some of the Presidential Families that add to his interest…

Jerry Smith and FLOTUS Julia Grant

First Lady Julia Grant

Smith was first engaged as a White House footman, and accompanied Mrs. Grant on her rounds of “calls,” a popular tradition in Washington for several decades. Dressed in his finest navy blue livery with silver trim, it was his responsibility to help the First Lady from the carriage and escort her to the door of whichever home she was visiting. If the lady was “at home,” he would wait until Mrs. Grant was ready to leave (about fifteen minutes), and then escort her back to the carriage. If the lady was not “at home,” Jerry would take Mrs. G’s calling card from a silver case, and leave it with whoever answered the door.

Julia Grant was a genuinely nice lady, and took a somewhat maternal interest in all the servants. When the Grants were in the White House, Washington real estate prices were low, and some “affordable housing” was available for the newly freed Negroes. Julia strongly urged all her Negro servants to purchase these houses as insurance for their old age: they would always have a place to live.

Jerry Smith was slow to respond to Mrs. Grant’s urging, and she became worried about the footman she had grown to like. She is said to have scolded him, adding that if he did not make arrangements to purchase a house immediately, she would buy one for him, and withhold some of his monthly wages to pay for it.

Jerry bought the house.

Jerry Smith and FLOTUS Cleveland

First Lady Frances Cleveland

There is a well-known story about young Frances Cleveland, about to depart the White House following Grover Cleveland’s first term on March 4,  1889. She is said to have told Jerry Smith, now the doorman, to be sure to keep everything just the same for when we come back. When queried about when they planned to come back, she replied “four years from today.” She was right.  The Clevelands again returned to the White House on March 4, 1893.

Toward the end of that term, Jerry Smith and his wife celebrated their 25th (Silver) Aniversary. Jerry completed his doorman duties, including lowering the flag, and quietly disappeared. Then members of the staff remembered it was Jerry’s special day.

According to Crook, “And to that home, that evening, wended a procession of dignitaries such as never before had graced its precincts. Everyone who came to the White House during Jerry’s service there of nearly a quarter of a century, knew the old man, and thoroughly liked him. So great was the general regard, that not merely clerks and assistant secretaries went to his silver wedding, but one carriage after another drove up to his door, containing Cabinet Officers and members of the Diplomatic Corps, sending in to him and his wife some personal gift appropriate to the occasion.”  A pile of silver dollars were left on his table. Jerry was in his glory: being the envy of all his neighbors.

“Official Duster” Jerry Smith, photographed in 1889 by Frances G. Johnston

Jerry Smith and the POTUS

President Theodore Roosevelt

When Jerry Smith retired in 1904 due to infirmity, Theodore Roosevelt was President. Jerry had been made “Official Duster” at the White House some years earlier. It was less physically stressful.

As a mark of personal respect and affection for the aging White House “fixture,” shortly before Jerry’s death, TR personally went to his home and sat with him for a while. It was same little house that Julia Grant had insisted that he purchase.


Crook, Col. W.H. – Memories of the White House: The Home Life of our Presidents from Lincoln to Rooevelt – Little Brown, 1911


Posted in Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Andrew Johnson and Strong Drink

Andrew Johnson2

Just about everyone knows of Andrew Johnson’s embarrassing inauguration as Vice President

The Embarrassing Inauguration

But for those who don’t, the gist of it is…

Republican President Lincoln had specifically requested Democrat Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864 – on the UNION ticket: neither Republican nor Democrat.

Months before the election, the Civil War was going poorly for the Union, and Lincoln seriously believed he would lose. There was great opposition on many fronts. Running on a “Union” ticket might focus the election platform/principles on the purpose of the War.


President Abraham Lincoln

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was a lifelong Democrat. His upbringing had been just as hardscrabble as Lincoln’s, and perhaps more so. He hoisted himself by his own bootstraps, became active in politics since his early twenties, and spent most of his adult life holding public office of consequence. He had served as a Congressman and Senator since 1843. He knew the ins and outs of national government.

But the important thing, at least to Lincoln, was that Andrew Johnson, Democratic Senator from Tennessee, was the only Senator from a Southern state that did not resign his office when the South seceded from the Union in 1861. He remained, absolutely and resolutely committed to preserving the Union.

With Tennessee second only to Virginia as a battlefield, Johnson had performed yeoman service to both Lincoln and Tennessee. This included a personally hazardous position as its Military Governor. His life was frequently threatened, and he even began carrying pistols for self defense. Lincoln was grateful for his loyalty and courage – and his service.

The Union ticket won the election.

lincoln-johnson poster

Lincoln-Johnson campaign poster

But in late February, 1865, the VPOTUS-elect became seriously ill, confined to his hotel quarters. His doctor thought it might be typhoid fever. He could not hold down any food for a few days. Nevertheless, the March 4 inauguration was scheduled, and sick or not, Andrew Johnson had to attend. His doctors prescribed a glass of strong whiskey to ward off the chill.

The upshot was that the glass of strong whiskey (or maybe two) in him, combined with an empty stomach, went straight to his head, and he embarrassed himself (and everyone else) with a rambling and incoherent inaugural speech.

Fortunately, the inauguration of the VPOTUS was held in Senate Chambers, and the audience was private. But everyone present was scandalized.

“Andy Johnson Ain’t A Drunk”

Dr Chas Johnson

Dr. Charles Johnson. He drank.

Lincoln was embarrassed for his running-mate, and was said to have publicly stated (at least to the Congressmen and Senators), that he had known Johnson for several years, and “Andy Johnson ain’t a drunk.”

Robt. Johnson

Robert Johnson. He drank.

A taste for alcohol may have been in the Johnson family genes. It certainly was in the case of Johnson’s two sons, Charles and Robert. Both young men had showed great promise in their youth, but perhaps due to the stresses of their service in the Civil War, both of them battled the bottle. Charles, a doctor in the Union Army died in a fall, exacerbated by alcohol. In the case of Robert, his “problem” was widely known by the time Johnson became Vice President, and some of that taint may have flowed upward to include his father.

But being a drunk and enjoying a few drinks are two very different things.

The Indianapolis Dinner Party

This is said to be a true story, by the way – told in an old long out-of-print book entitled The Funny Side of Politics.

When Johnson served as Military Governor of Tennessee, he was invited to a dinner party at the home of a prominent Indianapolis gentlemen and his teetotaling wife.

Even though the gentleman’s wife was an ardent believer in the evils of John Barleycorn, the socially snobbish gentleman insisted on purchasing the finest wines available hoping to impress his notable guest. His wife argued vociferously against violating her dinner table with any kind of alcohol, but the Polite Host insisted that Governor Johnson was undoubtedly accustomed to the best wines. He won out. Accordingly the table was set elegantly, including their finest wine glasses.

But when their servant came to pour the wine, Governor Johnson politely turned his glass over, claiming, “I never drink wine.”

The lady of the house was smug up to her eyelids, and the crestfallen Polite Host knew he would be in for a long temperance dissertation once their guests departed.

Perhaps to prolong the time of the dreaded “I told you so,” the Polite Host offered to drive Governor Johnson to the train station. It seemed that the train was not due to arrive for an hour, and Polite Host stayed to keep Johnson company.

“I refused wine at your dinner today because I don’t like the stuff. Too thin,” said Johnson. “Anyplace around here where we could get a drink of good old whiskey?” A somewhat surprised Polite Host indicated that a saloon was close by. The two men walked over, and Johnson ordered a strong libation – and one for his host. He further surprised his companion by downing the drink quickly, and ordering another.

One wonders if the vindicated Polite Host raced home to tell his wife about the “total abstainer” tossing off a shot or two, and giving her comeuppance.


Hilton, George S. – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899

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


Posted in American Civil War, Andrew Johnson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

President Grant and the Grant-Pops

President U.S. Grant

Most historians concur that Ulysses S. Grant’s parents were a little eccentric.

Grant and His Parents

Hannah Simpson Grant

Jesse Root Grant

Jesse Root Grant (1794-1873), the father, was born in Pennsylvania and transplanted to Ohio, where he married and raised a family. He was self-educated and hard working with shrewd business acumen, a trait not inherited by Ulysses, his oldest son. Coupled with a hard working ethic, was a doggedness of character: he pressed hard to obtain his goals. This trait was inherited by his oldest son. But Jesse Grant, despite being a successful businessman and decent citizen, was generally perceived by those who knew him, to be a bossy blowhard and know-it-all. His neighbors liked him well enough – but not that well.

Jesse and Hannah Grant.

Hannah Simpson Grant, his wife, was the polar opposite of Jesse: reticent to the point of silent. Her oldest son inherited some of that reticence. Hannah Grant was also a deeply religious woman, devoted to her Bible, her housework, and perhaps just slightly lower on the list, her family.

While Ulysses and his five siblings always got on well, and there was plenty of food and the necessities of childhood, there was little parental affection. After grace was said, the dinner table was a silent one. Conversation was not encouraged or permitted, unless Jesse had something to say.

But if that environment was out of the ordinary, none of the Grant children knew it.

Mrs. Grant and Her Parents

The family dynamics of Julia Dent, Grant’s wife, was totally opposite, with the one exception of her father, who, in his own way, was just as opinionated as Jesse Grant.

Ellen Wrenshall Dent

Julia was the fourth child and eldest daughter of seven little Dents.  Her father, Frederick Dent (1786-1873), was originally from Maryland, emigrated to St. Louis early in the 19th century, and once settled, acquired the honorary title of “Colonel,” which he used thereafter.

Julia was “The Colonel’s” favorite child; she inherited his plain features. But Ellen Wrenshall Dent was genuinely pleasant with a sweet disposition that soothed troubled waters easily. Julia inherited her mother’s “niceness.”

Julia Grant and her father. She looked like him.

When Lt. Ulysses Grant first met the Dents, they welcomed him with open arms (he was their son’s West Point roommate), and he, in turn, was overwhelmed by the affectionate and rollicking dinner table conversation. It was a family dynamic he had never experienced before. He would later come to realize that Col. Dent had many of the overbearing qualities of his own father.

A Separation of In-Laws

When the relationship between Ulysses and Julia quickly progressed to a romance-leading-to-marriage, Col. Dent’s attitude began to change. Julia had just turned eighteen – much too young to marry. Lt. Grant, at twenty-one, had slim prospects, and army officers did not earn much. Dent wanted better for his favorite daughter. Julia and her beloved decided to keep their intentions secret, a situation that lasted for four years.

The young General and his wife.

Following the Mexican War, when now-Captain Grant at a mature twenty-six came to claim his bride, twenty-two year old Julia was old enough. Col. Dent could not refuse.

Julia Grant, First Lady

But the Senior Grants, while aware of Ulysses’ romantic plans, were also aware that his beloved’s family were slave holders. The Grants, if not formally declared abolitionists, deplored slavery, and were unhappy with their son’s choice, a woman they had yet to meet. They showed no interest in meeting her family.

They did not attend the wedding in St. Louis. Family lore suggests that since Ulysses and Julia were headed to his new assignment in Detroit, they planned to visit the senior Grants en route. Family lore also suggests that by this time, Ulysses was well aware of his parents’ eccentricities. He was far less concerned whether or not they liked his beloved; he was far more concerned whether she liked them.

She didn’t. But Julia was a genuinely nice lady, and whenever she was in the company of her in-laws, she was properly deferential, polite and daughterly. They were nice enough to her. But Julia was always glad to leave, and Jesse Grant was just as glad to say goodbye.

The In-Laws Meet – Sort of.

Jesse Root Grant II. In his elder years he wrote a memoir.

Son-in-law and now Great General and POTUS Grant had had a rocky relationship with Col. Dent for most of his marriage, partly because of his lackluster years after resigning his military commission, but mostly about slavery and secession. Col. Dent was not only a slave owner, but a proud secessionist and Confederate. Grant was not, and never would be. But the older man was now a widower past eighty. He came to live with them in the White House, and his overbearing personality was felt by everyone.

Grant’s parents were certainly proud of their son, but true to form, Hannah Grant, once having said, “So now you are a big man,” and returned to her sewing, never changed. She did not attend the inauguration, nor visit the White House. Jesse Grant, bursting with smug pride, couldn’t wait to go! And, to no one’s surprise, the two grandfathers were oil and water: both insufferable, unbending and generally obnoxious. Col. Dent, was still an unrepentant Confederate who loved baiting presidential guests, including his daughter’s father-in law. Jesse Grant’s opinion of his son’s father-in-law was generally unprintable, particularly when Grandpop Dent consistently referred to Grandpop Grant as “the old gentleman.”  Jesse scoffed, reminding Dent that “The Colonel” was eight years his senior.

According to the President’s son, an adolescent Jesse Root Grant II, (who penned his memoirs some fifty years later), the two “grandpops” could barely stand being in the same room. Since Col. Dent lived at the White House, the senior Grant stayed in hotels when he was in town. But Jesse-the-grandson also remembered with great amusement how much he loved egging both of his old grandfathers into an argument, when they were coerced to sit together at the family table.


Grant, Jesse Root – In the Days of my Father, General Grant – Harper & Bros. 1925

McFeely, William S. – Grant: A Biography – W.W. Norton, 1981

White, Ronald C – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant – Random House, 2016






Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Bad Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

One of life’s important lessons is playing “the hand you are dealt” the best way you can.

FDR: Several Aces

By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was in his thirties, the hand he was dealt – a patrician-born New Yorker of the Hudson Valley, surrounded by wealth, privilege and being the center of attention, had altered several times as most lives do.

The Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park.

Little FDR.

He was brighter than somewhat, but not spectacular. He was pleasant and generally accepted, but never popular with his peers. Having been raised by an overly doting and formidable mother and an affectionate but elderly father, he had few opportunities to engage in peer-relationships as a boy.

The added bonus of being a 5th cousin to Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the United States when FDR was at Harvard, was not lost on him – even slightly. The double-bonus of marrying TR’s niece only added to his resume of good cards to be played.

FDR at around ten.

“Invited” to be a candidate for the NY State senate before he was thirty was one more bonus – one that rescued him from the drudgery of a mediocre (and distasteful) position as a lawyer. It was also one of the seminal moments of his life: placing him on the path of his true calling: politics.

Even the fact that he ran and won as a Democrat was not a problem for him. Republican “Uncle” Theodore understood and approved – and FDR idolized Uncle Theodore and planned to pattern his life in those huge footsteps.

FDR: The Hidden Ace Up His Sleeve

Most people who knew and associated with Franklin Roosevelt in his mature years tended to use the word “dissembling” when they discussed his personality. It is a perfectly good word, and accurate in describing how maddening it was to understand and work with him. FDR was well aware that “he never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing.” He played his cards very close to his chest.

FDR and his formidable mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. He learned to keep things to himself.

He did not blatantly lie. He also did not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He found it much easier (and to his advantage) to nod and smile, and let people think he agreed with them. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t; maybe he hadn’t made up his mind.

He kept his private thoughts to himself, practically from childhood. His mother wanted to be his best and only confidante; FDR did not wish to confide that much, and learned to duck. He became very good at it, and it usually served him well.

FDR: The Joker in the Deck

FDR’s political rise was steady rather than meteoric. He was considered an affable well-named lightweight. Nevertheless, in 1920, after serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Uncle Theodore’s old job) for eight years, he was nominated to run as VP to Democratic Presidential candidate James Cox of Ohio. They were both dark horses, and their chances to win were slim. FDR was only 39, and he could afford an election loss. And, as expected, they lost.

But only months later, Roosevelt contracted polio, a disease that usually affected children. He was not only very ill, but crippled for the rest of his life.

Months later, as his general health began to recover, he had serious choices to make. How could a crippled man be expected to hold public office, let alone elected office? His mother wanted him to remain home at Hyde Park, and devote himself to writing, or other sedentary activities. He was non-committal. His first goal was to regain his health.

Louis Howe, FDR’s political mentor.

His great political guide, mentor and all around Jiminy Cricket, Louis Howe, a newspaperman with a genius for political insight, differed vociferously. Get well of course, but still maintain your activity in politics. Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife of fifteen years, had become politically active in her own right, and also counseled him to keep his finger in the pie.

Playing the Hand he was Dealt

FDR was open and eager to try whatever cure, treatment, activity or possible panacea there was that might restore his crippled legs. He took long trips to Florida, where the warmer climate and water gave him the exercise that was necessary to his “recovery.”

Swimming was beneficial to restoring crippled limbs.

FDR’s house at Warm Springs, GA

When he discovered the naturally therapeutic waters at a sleepy and economically depressed little village in Georgia, he saw not only hope for improvement, but an opportunity to help others. He invested much of his personal income to purchase the area and turn Warm Springs into a rehabilitation center for polio patients. Scores, and hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, mostly children came for treatment and care.

No one worked harder than he did to “wiggle a toe.” Clapping heavy steel braces on his withered legs, allowing him to stand by gripping on to something, was as much a victory as Washington surviving the winter at Valley Forge, and it took a lot longer.

One of the rare photographs of FDR in a wheelchair.

If FDR was privately depressed by his own inability to regain his mobility, he played that hand extremely close to his chest. His winsome grin and cheerful charm diffused the pity that he loathed. People knew he had been very ill; it was never a secret. Many people knew he might require a cane, but that was no detriment. Most people knew nothing.

By the time he was ready to re-enter the political arena, he was an expert player of the deal gone sour. He channeled attention away from his infirmities, and focused completely on the strong and optimistic leadership he preferred to present.


Gallagher, Hugh – FDR’s Splendid Deception – Dodd, Mead, 1984

Goodwin, Doris Kearns – No Ordinary Time – Simon and Schuster, 1994

Roosevelt, Elliott (ed.) – FDR: His Personal Letters, Early Years 1905-1928, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948




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