Martha Johnson Patterson: First Daughter

Martha Johnson Patterson served for nearly four years as de facto First Lady to an unpopular president.

Martha Johnson Patterson, elder daughter of Andrew and Eliza Johnson.

The Johnson Family of Greeneville

Andrew Johnson (1808-75) was seventeen years old when he pushed a cart across the North Carolina border into Greeneville, TN. It is said that the day he came to town, sixteen-year-old Eliza McCardle (1810-76) saw him and remarked to a friend, “that is the boy I am going to marry.” Whether or not Eliza actually said it is immaterial; within months they did get married. At 18 and 16 respectively, Andrew and Eliza Johnson were the youngest-married First Couple.

Andrew Johnson’s two-room cabin.

Eliza, a shoemaker’s daughter whose father had recently died, needed a provider. Andy, a dirt-poor uneducated tailor-apprentice needed someone to manage a household. They moved into a tiny two-room cabin. One room was their bedroom, the other their living room-dining room and Johnson’s tailoring shop.

Soon enough, babies came along – four born within the first seven years. Martha, Charles, Mary and Robert. A fifth, Andrew Jr. (always called Frank in the family) was a surprise – born when Eliza was past forty.

Eliza could read and write and do basic sums. In the evening, while Andy sewed, she read to him and rocked a cradle. Johnson had no formal education. He could write his name, and knew some of his letters, but not much more. It was Eliza who taught him to read and write more fluently. It is also said that she helped him develop oratory skills.

The Family Prospers

The tailor shop prospered. Andrew Johnson was considered a valuable asset to the town. He began to attend town meetings, and by twenty-five, was active in local Democratic politics, becoming alderman and then mayor.

Johnson became successful and bought a bigger house.

When their first child (Martha) was still a toddler, the Johnson purchased a six-room house in town, with whatever niceties were considered essential for an up-and-coming family. Johnson was soon elected to the Tennessee legislature, and finally, in 1843, to the House of Representatives. Considered a quiet, serious girl, it was Martha who helped tend to the younger children and the house.

Moving to Washington, at least part time, Martha Johnson and her siblings received a fine education in Georgetown. One brother became a doctor, the other, a lawyer.

When Martha Johnson was twenty-seven, she married attorney David Patterson, and had two children. Her sister Mary, four years her junior, married Daniel Stover when she was twenty, and had three children.

The 1850s was a notoriously turbulent decade, and Tennessee was in the middle of the ruckus. Many of the Tennesseans were slave owners, and had been for decades. Many of them were strongly opposed to slavery, and had been for decades. The Johnsons, however, were ambivalent about slavery per se, but they were strongly in favor of the UNION. Now-Senator Andrew Johnson was making a name for himself in the Democratic Party (and not necessarily a good name). His manner and demeanor had always been, and always would be, pugnacious.

One of the very few images of Eliza Johnson.

Meanwhile, Eliza Johnson, a grandmother, now had a change-of-life baby herself and began having her own pile of troubles. She developed tuberculosis that drained her energy for a quarter century. Having Martha Patterson and Mary Stover nearby, raising babies of their own, was a godsend.

Johnson, His Women and the War

Next to Virginia, Tennessee suffered the most, with towns and cities ravaged, a populace violently divided, and dozens of battles and skirmishes fought.

The pugnacious Andrew Johnson.

Andrew Johnson was the only southern Senator who did not resign when his state seceded in June, 1861. Lincoln assigned him substantive duties to restore and/or maintain law and order in his troubled state. The Johnson women, wife and daughters and in-laws remained steadfast.

Nothing was kind to the Johnson daughters. In addition to a severe decline in their mother’s health, they lost their property, were shuttled from place to place, exchanging rudimentary shelter for the Governor’s Mansion, and back again.

Andrew Johnson was a cautionary tale and an odd choice as a running mate with Lincoln. Lincoln was not universally popular with his co-Republicans; Andy Johnson was a lifelong Democrat. A similar problem in 1840 between Whig William Henry Harrison and Democrat John Tyler might have raised a flag, but in 1860, other factors were in play. The Lincoln-Johnson ticket was a “Union” party ticket: neither Republican nor Democrat. As in 1840, it proved politically disastrous.

Within the space of six weeks, new-VP Andrew Johnson managed to embarrass himself badly at the inauguration, Lincoln was assassinated and died, and Andrew Johnson became president.

Mrs. Patterson, First Daughter-Lady

Martha Patterson was plain in dress and demeanor.

Now confined to her chair, the invalid Eliza Johnson was unable to participate in active First Lady duties. Placing the widowed Mary Stover in charge of the six small children who were now White House residents, Martha Patterson assumed the housekeeping and hostess management, along with being the wife of now-Senator David Patterson, elected to Johnson’s old seat.

Mary Stover, the younger Johnson daughter, was also plain in style.

The House itself was in poor condition. During the six weeks following the assassination, thousands of people marched through with little security. Rugs and furniture were trampled, curtains and draperies shredded by souvenir hunters, and the mansion that the Johnsons inherited was in sore need of repair and refurbishing. Both Martha and her sister (it is said) donned aprons and kerchiefs and worked along side the hired staff to clean and polish. “They were plain folks,” according to Martha, accustomed to hard work, which included milking the cows.  Her clothing was always simple and classic, and she wore little or no jewelry.

During the next four years, more than $100,000 would be periodically appropriated and spent to repaint, repaper, recarpet, repair and replace damaged walls, floors and furnishings. Mrs. Patterson spent wisely, and focused on the public rooms, keeping within her budget. That included collecting and hanging portraits of previous Presidents.

Despite the bitter animosity between the President and Congress, including impeachment proceedings, entertaining at the White House was done tastefully and appropriately. The last Johnson reception in 1869 is said to have attracted more than 5000 attendees.

In “retirement,” Martha Patterson returned to Tennessee and cared for her aging parents during their last years. Generally reclusive, she died in 1901, at the age of 73.


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

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995


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The Hoovers Rescue Americans: 1914

Lou and Herbert Hoover. They spent half their lives as Humanitarians.

When World War I began in August, 1914, Herbert and Lou Hoover were living in London’s posh Mayfair section.

The Hoovers.

Young Herbert Hoover. He was a millionaire a few times over by the time he was thirty.

Herbert Hoover was a 40-year old mining engineer and consultant in 1914. He had offices in six countries and was a millionaire several times over.  It was a far cry from his poor-Iowa-farm-orphan upbringing.

By his own talents, diligence and innate leadership, he parlayed a tuition-free Stanford University education into a series of positions, usually far above what his youth and inexperience would demand. He did not disappoint.

His wife of fifteen years, Stanford educated Lou Henry Hoover had a busy life for herself in London. In addition to raising two sons, she had become active in various social and civic outlets.

Bottom line: The Hoovers had a happy and substantial social life.  While they did not travel in “royal” circles, they entertained frequently and counted as friends several high-level business and government officials.

The European Money Crisis 1914.

Lou Henry Hoover was a degreed geologist from Stanford University in her own right.

Bert Hoover had no idea that his life as he knew it, was coming to an abrupt end. Europe had been a tinderbox for more than a decade, and in midsummer, 1914, it ignited with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The flames spread rapidly, consuming the continent.

There were more than 100,000 Americans in Europe that summer. Some had lived there for years, some were on business, some on vacation – and many with families. When the great armies mobilized, their one thought was to get home as quickly as possible. England was a key terminus for ships bound for America.

The huge problem was money, or more precisely, the availability of spendable money. Most of them had American dollars in their pockets; some had substantial letters of credit from well-known banks. But each belligerent country only accepted its own currency. In those pre-euro days, that meant that France only accepted francs; Germany the deutschmark, Italy the lire, etc.  That also included the British pound.

Lou Henry Hoover and their two sons, John and Herbert Jr., about the time World War I erupted in Europe.

As thousands of Americans poured into the London train stations, they could not get so much as a cup of coffee or a place to stay for the night while they were trying to make travel arrangements.  They did not have (and could not get) pounds and shillings.

One of the British officials assigned to manage this “surprise” crisis was a friend of the Hoovers. He called Bert and asked if he might come and help sort out the sprawling mess. Hoover did not hesitate.

The Quick Fix

It did not take Herbert Hoover very long to determine what his fellow Americans needed: a small “loan” to get them food and lodging until they could settle their passage reservations. It was considered a “temporary” problem, but an immediate one that needed to be resolved.

Within the hour he telephoned his wife to bring all the money they had in the house – 500 pounds (the equivalent of about $2500).

Then, with nothing more than pen and paper, he began lending Americans two or three or five pounds – enough to bridge the gap. All he required was a hand-signed note to secure the “loan.” The following day, he went to the bank and withdrew several thousand pounds, and continued his home-made remedy.

Years later, Hoover wrote that he personally “lent” around $300,000 of his own money in dribs-and-drabs. He added that perhaps only $300 went unpaid, and suggested that some people may have died in the interim.

Meanwhile Mrs. Hoover…

Having been made aware of the huge influx of Americans descending upon the London train stations, Lou Henry Hoover determine upon her own “quick fix.” She called several of her woman friends to help relieve some of the most pressing problems.

They contacted various restaurants and hotels to send sandwiches and coffee and milk for the children – to be distributed free of charge to the stranded travelers.

Then they arranged to have a section of the station cordoned off for a make-shift day-care area. Cribs and cookies, tables and chairs, and games and toys were quickly collected, plus dozens of volunteers to be “nannies-for-an-hour.” This way infants, toddlers and restless youngsters were supervised and occupied for a little while so their parents could stand in line to make travel arrangements.

Both Hoovers adored children, and they would mentor them for the rest of their lives.

The Hoovers Change Careers

Within the first months of World War 1, neutral (!) Belgium was overrun by the German army, and millions were left homeless.

The American cash crisis was resolved fairly quickly, but no sooner than that crunch was over, a new crisis began. Belgium – a neutral nation – was overrun by German soldiers who trampled through and practically destroyed the country. Thousands of Belgians were made homeless; even more were starving, and winter was coming on.

The opportunity to be of service ignited the imaginations and consciences of both Herbert and Lou Hoover.

He would never again work as a mining consultant, and within the year, arranged for his business interests to be divested.

From that time on, he became a Humanitarian with a “capital H”, channeling all his energies and immense organizational talents into philanthropy on a grand scale.

And he never took a dime of public money in compensation for any of his services.



Mayer, Dale M. – Lou Henry Hoover, A Prototype for First Ladies – Nova History Publications, 2004

Smith, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984

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



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BARBRA STREISAND: On the Couch: A Book Review

In the introductory remarks, author Alma Bond noted that of the twenty-some books she has written during her long career, Barbra Streisand: On the Couch is her favorite. This is easy to understand. Dr. Bond, psychoanalyst with scores of years’ experience, is as natural as pie, with an unerring ear for style, cadences and voices.  It is an enjoyable and easy read!

As with her other “On the Couch” series of books, Dr. Bond, aka Darcy Dale, invents a thin ruse to bring the subject to her office for analysis. In the case of Barbra Streisand, the ploy is gossamer-thin: that she has spent a gazillion years and dollars in analysis and nobody has “helped her.” Helped her what? The truth is, of course, that Barbra Streisand needs “help” about as much as a corpse needs a transfusion. But hey, no ploy, no plot.

So in comes La Babs, a genuine star of the first magnitude, in the public eye for six decades mind you, with phenomenal talents on many fronts. So what is the overwhelming “problem” that brings her to Darcy Dale’s couch? We have no idea, other than the fact she likes to talk about herself. (This is generally indigenous to the high egos of stars of the first magnitude.)

Her Jewish childhood in Brooklyn was one step above miserable:  A distracted and distant mother, the usual poverty and the-kids-don’t-like-me, and a nasty and humiliating step-father (for a while).  Then there is her relentless focus on the natural father who had the temerity to die when she was a toddler. It has consumed her. Of course she know this; she is not stupid.

She is also not lacking in courage or insight. It takes huge insight (as well as musical gifts) to craft the phrasing for the songs she sings so well. She makes you believe every word of them. She also has near perfect-pitch in selecting the songs she sings.  Like Sinatra, she has had very few “oops” choices (and she likely knew it as she was choosing it).  This is no small accomplishment.  And the perfectionism with which she sweeps in and rules everything in her life is practically guaranteed to keep the kids from still not liking her.  More common to women than men, as we know.

Barbra Streisand soared to stardom by the time she was twenty, and never loosened her hold on the diva-role. Her hold on personal relationships is a different matter, and has never appeared to cause her internal angst or anything more than a temporary whine.

Her first marriage to fellow New Yorker Elliott Gould was an up-and-down love-hate story for a decade, and, as Barbra suspects (on the couch), under other circumstances, they might still be together. They are/were cut from the same New York-Jewish-kinda-tough cloth. They understand each other. Her current husband, James Brolin is also of that cloth. Their marriage in now into their second decade.

But between Elliott and Jim, The Divine Miss S. has had a string of fly-by-guys, boy-toys and assorted pals for a time. Few (scratch that to none) have been her equal in terms of talent, whether singing or acting or directorial or production. Or money. Their ability to maintain the relationship was more whether they could put up with her initials.

Her only absolute relationship (other than her work and fixating on the long-deceased father-with-a-halo) is her son Jason Gould. She seems obviously proud and delighted that he is gay and promiscuous, worrying only slightly because he is HIV positive and who knows what else. His father Elliott seems to have had little to do with his upbringing.

Then there is the political Barbra, outspoken and passionate about those issues she cares about. And, in her behalf, she is willing to put her money where her mouth is. Whether anyone really cares what she thinks (other than a candidate in need of cash) is open to conjecture. She is, of course, entitled to her various opinions. Listeners are, of course, entitled to tune out if desired.

The one thing Dr. Darcy Dale does not tackle, nor does Barbra herself, is dealing with her public confession of stage fright, which has kept her body of work (i.e. concerts, live theater and appearances) extremely small, considering nearly 60-years of fame and sincere talent. Unlike Judy Garland, another star of the first magnitude who thrived on live performances, Barbra shuns the stage or the arena.  She is a bona fide control freak by her own admission. She has an exacting and usually on-target sense of perfection. She obviously doesn’t wish to lose control for a moment, and you can’t reshoot a live performance. And she does not need the money.

If she wants to keep looking for the father she never had and imbuing him with sainthood according to Rabbi Barbra, she is also entitled. But it does get tiresome. One could picture Barbra and Pops meeting up by the Pearly Gates, where she is crushed to see that he has no halo, no harp and does not walk on water.

Barbra Streisand needs no shrink. She is the 600-pound gorilla. She can do what she wants. And Alma Bond, with her string of credits behind her, obviously knows this.

But Dr. Bond is a nifty and gifted writer, and long may she continue to find willing subjects for her always-delightful couch!


Barbra Streisand: On the Couch

Dr. Alma H. Bond

Bancroft Press, October 2017

ISBN-10: 1610882113

$25.92, Hardcover

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Ulysses S. Grant: The Appomattox Parole Perks

April 9, 1865 was arguably among the most important days in U.S. history.

U.S. Grant: The Surrender


General Lee surrenders to General Grant. It was over in an hour.

The Civil War had dragged on for four long years, and the casualty count was in the hundreds of thousands and would go higher. It had lasted far longer than anyone ever expected with casualties far more than anyone ever imagined.

Soldiers and civilians, North and South, were exhausted, but Union soldiers outnumbered the dwindling Confederates, both in manpower and supplies. That included food; it was rumored that their army was literally starving.

Lincoln met with his Generals only weeks before Lee surrendered. He outlined his policy for the surrender.

The war had gone beyond the point of diminishing returns. Thus it was with a heavy heart that Confederate General Robert E. Lee agreed to meet with Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and finally end the horrible business.

The terms, according to the expressed policy of President Abraham Lincoln, were generous. Only a few weeks earlier, Lincoln had counseled his top generals to “let ’em up easy.”

Grant’s terms were simple: put down your arms, go home and fight no more. They would not be assailed. Ex-rebel soldiers would be paroled on law abiding behavior. General Lee asked and was granted another request: those who owned horses and mules could keep their personal property. Grant conceded the request; they would need their animals for spring planting. Lee said the terms would have a happy effect on his men.

It was all over in an hour.

The Paroles

All military is predicated on order, and even in surrender, order needed to be maintained and detailed records assiduously kept.

A parole for Channing M. Smith, courtesy of Chief Ernie Price at the Appomattox C.H. National Park.

Northern soldiers cranked out thousands of hastily printed parole slips on common, blue-lined notebook paper. They were simply worded, but required name, rank and signatures. Once completed and duly recorded, the now ex-rebels could make their way home.

Some of them lived close by. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been created from a large portion of native Virginians, although attrition and recruitment had added soldiers from the entire South over the years, even as far away as Texas.

Nevertheless, happy effect or not, some diehard Confederates refused to sign the paroles, and merely “slipped away,” or, as they claimed, “escaped from Appomattox.”

Grant’s Order #73

At the time of the surrender, it was common knowledge that the remnants of the Confederate Army was in dire straits. Food had been scarce for weeks. Expected supplies had been undelivered. Grant arranged rations to be sent to Lee’s encampments.

Union soldiers line up outside the McLean house in Appomattox Court House.

According to Ernie Price, Chief of Education and Visitor Services at Appomattox Court House NPS, one of the little known facts, are the terms of General Grant’s Order #73, which entitled the bearer of the parole to free transportation – a railroad ticket or steamship passage.

“All officers and men of the Confederate service paroled at Appomattox Court House, Va., who, to reach their homes, are compelled to pass through the lines of the Union armies, will be allowed to do so, and to pass free on all Government transports and military railroads.”

Mostly, they walked. They had become “professional walkers” over the course of the War, able to go twenty miles or more on foot – every day.

President Abraham Lincoln espoused “let ’em up easy” terms of surrender.

Splitting from their units, the former soldiers evolved into small groups of two or three or four, all going in the same direction, at least for a while.  Scores of them made their way to Danville, not far from Appomattox. Danville was a railroad hub, generally undamaged by fighting. Trains were still running South – and West. A few ran North to Baltimore where ships were available to go to Charleston or New Orleans or ports in between. A signed parole was all that was needed for free passage.

The Parole: Other Perks

The reverse side of a parole, indicating that additional items had been given to the parolee. Courtesy of Ernie Price at the Appomattox C.H. National Park.

Chief Price, an expert on the paroles, acknowledges that the existing physical papers are few and far between. Given the flimsy paper quality, the tucking away in pockets or haversacks, the sad remembrances and simply the passage of more than 150 years, they have become a rarity.

But he also acknowledged that in addition to transportation benefits, ex-Confederates could, if need be, apply at any Union-held commissary and receive food or clothing or shoes. The Chief explained that the ex-Rebel merely had to present the parole slip and a Union officer would sign the reverse indicating what had been provided. One such rarity noted that a bolt of denim cloth had been issued. (The soldier could then take the cloth to a local tailor and have a pair of pants made.)

He also noted that while food might be provided, ex-Confederates preferred to stop at farmhouses along the way. They were on their own home soil; many of the farms were still reasonably prosperous. Most families were generous; too many had lost sons or husbands or brothers. If they could spare the meal and provide a warm and dry place to spend the night, they were happy to open their homes and hearts.

Abraham Lincoln sincerely wanted the Union to be reunited as easily and gently and with as little hardship as possible. One could conjecture that had he lived, “reconstruction” might have been very different. Maybe.


Ernie Price, Chief of Education and Visitor Services at Appomattox Court House NPS

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George Washington and the Miracle at Newburgh

There are several versions of this story, but the essence is always the same.

The Yorktown Surrender

Most people think the American Revolution ended in 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered his Redcoat army to Washington in Yorktown. That is not exactly true.

George Washington accepting Lord Cornwallis’ sword. An symbolic-historic painting. Photography was decades in the future.

In October, 1781, after nearly seven years of fighting a motley bunch of American militiamen, Lord Charles Cornwallis found his British Army in an untenable situation: surrounded on three sides with his back to the Chesapeake Bay, now patrolled by the French Navy. There was no way out.

If effectively brought the British and Americans to the negotiating table, but it took nearly another two years before the war actually ended.

Since it also took weeks and months for the British to disband their armies and arrange for transportation home, the American army was still obliged to maintain its vigilance. Congress, still assembled in Philadelphia, was all but impotent, but had the good fortune in sending some of its finest (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) to Europe to represent what the new country could become. But Congress accomplished little else.

GW: General of a Nation

George Washington as General of the Colonial Army. The Revolutionary War would age him considerably.

Despite his ever-regretted lack of a classical education, George Washington (1732-1799) was an astute businessman of uncommon intelligence. His original espousal of American independence – back in the late 176os – was predicated on financial issues and trade. As one of the delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, he was notably the only delegate with actual military experience, albeit twenty years earlier.

Named Commander-in-Chief of the Colonial Army, Washington was another fortuitous choice on many fronts. Militarily, he was constantly outnumbered, outclassed and usually outperformed by the British redcoats. Occasionally he could outsmart them – but it was rare, and more likely just a good tactical retreat.

In a business and administrative sense however, he was second to none. His organization, his reporting, his attention to detail and his good judgment in selecting subordinate staff was superb. His management of his officers was excellent. He could also “out-politick”  a few grumblers determined to undermine.

Few understood better than General Washington how imperative it was to maintain sufficient forces during that interim when the formal papers were being discussed. He intuitively know that a weak and uncohesive group of thirteen ex-colonies could be easy picking for England (again) or even France in the foreseeable future.

Maintaining the Army and maintaining his command was essential. Much as he truly longed to be Cincinnatus, and much as he ached to return to Mount Vernon, he knew his physical presence was possibly the only thing holding the country together.

Poor Congress

Most historians concede that the representatives to Congress during the late years of the Revolutionary War could be considered the “second string” team. The thirteen separate colonies, now separate states, behaved exactly the way earlier leaders feared: separately. Not surprisingly, most of the problems focused on money and taxation. Washington had faced that problem at the outset, i.e. if the battle was fought in Massachusetts, Massachusetts was expected to pay for it. The concept of providing monies (taxes) to support other states was unacceptable.

Congress understood the problem, and its representatives duly voted for proportionate taxes – but the individual state governments did not oblige. General Washington spent huge amounts of his time trying to coerce wealthy and influential citizens to support the soldiers, who were always in need of food, clothing, weapons and forage for horses.


George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, NY.

By 1782-3, the fragile United States were even more dis-united. George Washington once again cancelled his plan to return to Mount Vernon for a holiday in order to remain with the Army, now headquartered in Newburgh, NY, along the Hudson River.

Some of Washington’s officers.

The soldiers had not been paid for months. The paper money Congress had previously issued was worthless – “not worth a continental.” There were rumors that their promised pensions would be cancelled. The officers, the very backbone of the army, were disgruntled to a point of mutinous. Some of them called a meeting to plan a march to Philadelphia demanding payment by Congress. Washington was not “invited” to the meeting. He had always enjoyed the trust and respect of his officers; this was a serious matter: his ability to command was at stake.

There are many versions to the story, but the crux is always the same. George Washington spent much of the day carefully drafting his best arguments to persuade the officers of his genuine support and his continued influence to see they received justice, entreating them to be patient a little longer, and to trust their elected officials.  He also noted that all they had gained for their country could be irrevocably lost by behaving rashly.

John Adams’ eyeglasses from a decade later. Washington’s glasses were likely similar.

At the appointed hour of the ad hoc meeting, Washington, looking ever inch the General, strode unannounced into the front of the room. He was past fifty by then, having spend nearly 20% of his lifetime with the Army. He spoke briefly and to the point, and indicated that he had received a letter from Congress that he wished to read.

Then he fumbled in his waistcoat, doing something his officers had never seen him do before: he took out a pair of spectacles. Washington apologized, saying that he had “not only grown gray, but nearly blind in the service of his country.”

It is said that the officers were moved to tears at this singular personal confession from their marble-man General.

He had averted a mutiny.

He had provided a different kind of leadership.

He had become the indispensable man.

It may have been his finest moment.


Flexner, James T. – George Washington in the American Revolution 1775-1783 – Little Brown, 1968

Lengel, Edward G. – General George Washington: A Military Life – Random House, 2005


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The Courtship of Bess and Harry Truman

President and Mrs. Truman. Nobody would have thought they’d make it so far!

Bess Wallace and Harry Truman courted (sort of) for nearly thirty years.

Little Boy Harry and Little Girl Bess:

Writing of his courtship many years after his marriage, Harry Truman said he first fell in love with Bess Wallace when they were five – in little-kid dancing school.

Young Harry Truman from the wrong side of the tracks.

Farm boy Harry S Truman (1884-1972) was born and raised in Lamar, MO,  just outside Independence, not far from Kansas City. While his family were far from poverty-stricken, they were farmers, on the poorer side of the economic scale. Harry was the eldest of three, and from the start, was expected to do farm chores as well as keep up with his school work.

Not so Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (1885-1982). She was the oldest of four born to David and Madge Wallace, but the pedigree of privilege came from her maternal grandparents. Grandpa Gates was the owner of a prosperous flour mill. Considered wealthy, they lived in a fine house on the finest street in Independence, MO. Madge Gates had married David Wallace over her parents’ objections.

Little Bess Wallace – from the better side of the tracks.

Lamar and Independence are not far in distance, and many schooling and related activities were combined. Bess and Harry were the same age, and in the same public school class through high school, but that acquaintanceship was generally superficial, partly because of their youth, and mostly because of the huge gap in their social status. Harry was farmer; Bess was city-swell.

Bess and Harry: Reacquainted

When Bess was eighteen, any hopes she may have had for college or business school were dashed when her father committed suicide. The Wallace marriage had been unhappy for many years; David Wallace was an alcoholic who could never maintain a job for long. Madge Wallace was a difficult woman who could never quite face the truth.

In the early 20th century, suicide was a scandalous stigma. The Wallaces claimed the ubiquitous “business reversals” and moved away for a year to let things die down. When they moved back, they lived with the elderly Gateses. Perhaps realizing that she needed to take charge, Bess stayed home to manage the household and get her three younger brothers educated and out of a toxic environment as soon as possible – for their own good.

Meanwhile, Harry having lost his father, had a farm to run, a mother to support, and two younger siblings to help raise. College was out of the question for young Mr. Truman.

Several years passed before he met up with Miss Wallace again.

The story goes that Harry was in Independence visiting relatives, and one of them mentioned a pie plate that needed to be returned to Mrs. Wallace. Harry volunteered to be the messenger-of-return.

Madge Wallace, Bess’ “difficult” mother – even when she lived in the White House.

Showing up at Bess’ door, pie-plate in hand, was the start of their mature relationship. By that time, both were in their twenties. He was still poor. Bess was still considered well-to-do, thanks to the large house and the Gates’ inheritance.

Their early courtship was sporadic, since Harry had responsibilities at home and very little money. Nevertheless, whenever he came to call, Bess was happy to see him.  Alas, Mrs. Wallace was not thrilled by the attentions of “Farmer Truman,” believing he was well beneath the Wallace social level. Bess did not care. She liked Harry.

For the next decade, they kept company, and talked about marriage – when he could afford it. Problem was, he couldn’t afford it.

Bess, Harry and World War I

Captain Harry Truman, the unlikely soldier.

When World War I finally came to US shores, Harry Truman was 33 years old and extremely nearsighted. He was obviously deferrable. But he wanted very much to serve, and volunteered. Bess may have agreed with her mother on that issue: he had to be nuts! But she made no objection, and even suggested that they marry prior to his going “over there.”

Harry said absolutely not! He might be killed and she would be a widow. Or worse: he might be seriously injured and she would be saddled with an invalid. She agreed to wait.

So he took her photograph, became Captain Harry, served commendably, wasn’t killed or wounded and came home.

By this time, they were both well into their thirties, and if they were going to get married and have a family, they had better get cracking!

Bess, Harry, and Mrs. Wallace

The new Mr. and Mrs. Harry Truman on their wedding day.

Madge Wallace never changed her opinion about Harry Truman – even when he was in the White House. To her, he was always Farmer Truman, not nearly good enough for her daughter.

According to the Trumans’ daughter, when her parents were ready to set the date, they had their first and only big row. Margaret Truman never knew the details, and her parents never discussed them, but their daughter surmised that it was likely because Harry wanted a place of their own. Bess insisted they live with her mother. Madge Wallace could not live alone – and no one other than Bess could live with her.

Margaret concluded that Harry must have loved Bess very deeply. He bought the package.

They were married on June 28, 1919. Mrs. Wallace moved into a smaller room, and the newlyweds took over the large bedroom. Nevertheless, it would always be Mrs. Wallace’s house. Bess had her childhood girlfriends who came to play bridge periodically. Harry went to one of the local hotels one night a week for a poker game with the guys. The Trumans never invited friends to the house. If they socialized, it was “out.”

According to his friends, Truman had “the original mother-in-law from hell.” But the Truman marriage was solid.


Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower – Sourcebooks, 2011

Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan

Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – 1972, William Morrow

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Harding and Taft: Making An Old Man Happy

Every so often, dreams do come true. Even in politics

Ex-President Taft: A Public Career

William Howard Taft (1857-1932) spent his entire life in public service: as judge, as Solicitor General, as Governor of the Philippines, as Cabinet member and as President – the only job he claimed to have disliked.

When he retired from the presidency in 1913, he was at loose ends, both personally and financially. The prominent Taft family of Cincinnati, Ohio had always encouraged its favorite son/brother – even to a point of augmenting his pre-presidential salary, which was comfortable, but never opulent.

First Lady Helen Herron Taft shortly after Taft’s election.

In the nineteenth century, public servants, particularly those at a higher level (like a judge), were expected to contribute not only to the party that elected them, but to all the worthwhile civic causes: to wit, the old soldiers’ home, the opera house, the new library. They were also expected to attend all the see-and-be-seen events.

Mrs. Taft’s health curtailed most of her abilities to function publicly during Taft’s administration.

In 1913, there was no presidential pension, and “suitable” post-presidential paying jobs were limited. Taft still had a young son to be educated and a wife to care for. Nellie Taft, at 48, was only First Lady for a few months when she had a severe stroke. While she recovered substantially, incidents and relapses forced her to completely refocus her enormous energies on her health. Taft needed the paying job.

WHT: The Interim Years

Taft’s beloved Yale, the family Alma mater, came to his rescue with the offer of a chair of law. “Judge” Taft was eminently qualified. A professorship at Yale was eminently suitable.  The position was prestigious; the work flexible and easy, and he sincerely enjoyed working with the young students. Taft also had plenty of time for the many speaking engagements that were coming his way. He was amazed that organizations paid $200 or more plus expenses, just to have him eat a chicken dinner and speak for an hour!

In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Taft to the National War Labor Relations Board.  The two men had gotten along well, and the new part-time position did not interfere with his Yale responsibilities.

It also allowed the Tafts to spend more time in Washington. Mrs. Taft disliked being cooped up in Connecticut, and missed her friends and activities in the capital.

The Harding Connection

Warren Harding (1860-1923) was also an Ohioan, but from central Ohio, and from an undistinguished family. As publisher of the Marion Star, he had gravitated easily into politics, mainly as a popular speaker at various organizations around the state.

Senator Warren G. Harding, the man who looked like a president.

Blessed with the politician’s “glad hand” at the meet-and-greets, he was elected to the Ohio State Legislature, and served a term as Lt. Governor.

His personal connection with Taft-as-President had been casual and limited, even though as a former Lt. Governor, Harding had been invited to the massive gala 25th Wedding Anniversary party the Tafts hosted in 1911. (Since 8000 invitations were issued, the guest list was obviously not select.)

Harding repaid the courtesy by making a nominating speech for Taft’s re-election at the 1912 Republican convention. Taft won the party’s nomination, but lost the election big time!

WHT: Unrequited Love

Not long after William Howard Taft received his law degree, he was appointed to the bench and found his one true love. Being a judge suited his temperament, his disposition, his intellectual leanings and perhaps his outsized girth. A judge’s robe covers a lot of territory. The more he progressed in his career, the more he loved the bench, and his greatest ambition (which was never a secret) was an appointment to the Supreme Court.

Young William Howard Taft became a judge early in his career, and never wavered in his love of the bench.

President Theodore Roosevelt offered him the post three times, and three times he declined – all for substantive reasons. It was a painful decision each time.

Even more privately painful was the odd coincidence that in his single four-year term, Taft appointed six justices to the Court – the most of any one-term president. In essence, he was handing over his lifelong dream to others – including the plum post of Chief Justice.

His chances were slipping away.

Meanwhile Harding…

Handsome Warren Harding had made a solid name for himself throughout Ohio as a popular guest speaker. He loved “bloviating” as he called it, and was happy to help boost Republican colleagues in their election efforts.

Those benevolent chickens came to roost when Harding was elected to the US Senate in 1914.

He went to Washington and glad-handed and bloviated and boosted – this time on a national level. By 1920, while the country at large did not know the small-town newspaper publisher, Republican bigwigs did. He was everybody’s second or third or fourth choice for the nomination. He won that fairly easily.

Women voted for the first time, and liked his easy style and good looks. Harding won the presidency very easily.

WHT: Happy At Last

Not long after his election, Harding invited ex-President Taft for a chat. The conversation covered many subjects, and eventually came around to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice and Mrs. William Howard Taft. He was a happy man.

Harding admitted being aware of Taft’s desire for the bench; Taft, the always-honest man, admitted his lifelong dream, which by then was an open secret. But he also admitted that as a former President, he could only accept the position of Chief Justice. Three of the sitting justices had been his own appointments – including the Chief Justice himself.

Harding was understanding, but non-committal.

But Chief Justice Edward D. White was in failing health. Within the year, he died, and the seat was vacant. It would be a very short vacancy. President Harding made Taft  joyous by nominating him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was well past sixty, and had nearly given up all hope of his dream job. The Senate confirmed him unanimously the following day.  To this day, he is still the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice.  It is said that Taft’s last ten years were his happiest.


David J. Danelski and Artemus Ward, editors – The Chief Justice: Importance & Influence – University of Michigan Press, 2016

Ross, Ishbel – An American Family: The Tafts – World Publishing, 1964

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