Tag Archives: presidency

The Messy Election … of 1876

24 Nov
Cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted the Compromise of 1877 as a “truce, not a compromise.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted the Compromise of 1877 as a “truce, not a compromise.” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

Between now and the inauguration of the next president, we may hear a lot of references to the election and compromise of 1876–77. Though that messy race is often cited as a distant precedent for a post-vote battle for electoral votes, no contest is more relevant or urgent today.

So begins historian Jon Grinspan’s concise account of the presidential election of 1876. You may read his entire post at the American Historical Association’s Perspectives Daily site here.

President Wilson and the 1918 Infuenza

3 Oct
Woodrow Wilson at Paris Peace Conference in January 1919
Woodrow Wilson, seen here at the start of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, never publicly acknowledged the pandemic’s toll on his country.
(Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide—including some 675,000 Americans—in just 15 months. But Woodrow Wilson’s White House largely ignored the global health crisis, focusing instead on the Great War enveloping Europe and offering “no leadership or guidance of any kind,” as historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, recently told Time’s Melissa August.

“Wilson wanted the focus to remain on the war effort,” Barry explained. “Anything negative was viewed as hurting morale.”

So begins Meilan Solly’s historical piece. You may read her entire Smithsonian story here.

An Illuminati Conspiracy Theory Captured American Imaginations in the Nation’s Earliest Days—And Offers a Lesson for Now

25 Sep
circa 1795: Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752 - 1817)
circa 1795: Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752 – 1817)
 Getty Images

In the final weeks before the 2020 election, the outsize role of conspiracy theories in American politics has become unmistakable. For some Trump supporters in particular, campaign-season news is filtered through the powerful idea that hidden forces are at work, that the “deep state”—a supposed secret, shadowy and sinister group of leftist politicians, government bureaucrats, Chinese scientists, journalists, academics and intellectuals—is seeking to destroy American values. Seen through that lens, COVID-19, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, is a “hoax”; some even believe that Anthony Fauci is a “deep state doctor.”

But while the particulars of these theories may be new, the dynamics are not. In fact, they go all the way back to America’s earliest years: In the late 1790s, Jedidiah Morse, the congregational minister in Charlestown, Mass., and a well-known author of geography textbooks, drew national attention by suggesting that a secret organization called the Bavarian Illuminati was at work “to root out and abolish Christianity, and overturn all civil government.” Today, such an idea sounds both eerily familiar and like a relic of a less sophisticated time—but the lessons of that episode are decidedly relevant.

So begins my friend historian John Fea’s concise piece on Christians, Federalists, and the Bavarian Illuminati. You may read his entire Time story here.

Considering the candidates and campaign context of 1920 in light of 2020

21 Sep
Image may contain Funeral Human Person Crowd Clothing and Apparel
Republican Warren G. Harding spoke to voters from his front porch in Ohio.
Photograph from A.P.

Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.

A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the covid-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.

The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.

When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.

So begins Thomas Mallon’s engaging reconsideration of the 1920 presidential selection and campaign. You may read his entire New Yorker piece here.

When George H. W. Bush played the religion card: 1988

3 Dec

George H.W. Bush was not one to wear his religion on his sleeve. But to gain the Republican presidential nomination, he felt he had to.

A New England Episcopalian, Bush was raised listening to his devout mother read from the Book of Common Prayer. Like other upper class class WASPS raised in the mid-20th century, he was a regular churchgoer.

But beyond checking a denominational box and invoking the Deity on the appropriate ceremonial occasions, Bush did not make his religion part of his political life.

Until 1988, that is.

So begins Mark Silk’s report at Religion News Service on religion in the late former President Bush’s 1988 campaign. You may read the entire report here.

Papers of President Theodore Roosevelt Now Online

17 Oct

The Library of Congress is announcing that the Theodore Roosevelt Papers are now online. You may read the entire announcement here.

The Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant

20 Jun

Every now and then a past American president undergoes a radical change in historical reputation. The starkest case was probably that of Harry Truman who was single-handedly rehabilitated twenty-five years ago by David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson has had rough innings recently at the hands of liberal historians who once lauded him but now focus on his long, profitable—and mealy-mouthed—entanglement with slavery.

The latest candidate for redemption is Ulysses S. Grant. The process has been underway for a couple decades already but surely has hit full stride now, courtesy of America’s favorite biographer, Ron Chernow. Also a Pulitzer winner for his work on George Washington and a prime source for the endlessly popular stage musical, Hamilton …

So begins historian James Bratt’s review of Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant. You may read the rest of the review at the Twelve here.

Papers of President Woodrow Wilson Now Online

15 May

The Library of Congress now has Woodrow Wilson’s Papers online. You may read the official post, with link, here.

World War I: A soldier & a president

4 May

My friend, storyteller Jim Schaap, has posted at The Twelve a fine reflection on his great uncle and on Woodrow Wilson–apropos this final year of the World War I centennial. You may read Jim’s post here.

The National Security Archive and U.S. Secrets

19 Dec

Shortly after the government released a trove of documents on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I sat down with Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, to talk about America’s dysfunctional mechanisms for classifying and declassifying information. Here, in an edited transcript, he weighs in on why historians should be extra-grateful for Hillary Clinton’s private server; what really needs to be declassified; and how history is likely to judge Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

At BloombergView, James Gibney (quoted above) interviews Tom Blanton about classifying, declassifying, and archiving U.S. secrets. Read the entire interview here.

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