Better Days Ahead: Dwight Eisenhower Enforces an Order for Civil Rights

On September 4, 1957, when a defiant Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas deployed the Arkansas National Guard to support segregationists school boards to prevent nine African-American students from attending high school, it created a politically difficult situation for President Dwight Eisenhower. He could either enforce the law and pay a political price for doing so, he could attempt some mushy middle ground solution that would leave these nine students at the mercy of racist masses, or he could do nothing. Eisenhower courageously chose to do the right thing and uphold the law.

These students were known as the Little Rock Nine and the actions of the segregationist governor led to a confrontation with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the issue of integration of schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had issued its historic decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954. The decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation.

Following the decision, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attempted to register black students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South. In Little Rock, the Little Rock School Board initially said it would comply with the high court's ruling. Virgil Blossom, the Superintendent of Schools, submitted a plan of gradual integration to the school board on May 24, 1955, which the board unanimously approved. The plan would be implemented during the fall of the 1957 school year, which would begin in September 1957. By 1957, the NAACP had registered nine black students to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance. The nine students were Ernest Green. Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals. Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High School.

When Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from attending high school, it made national headlines. One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, would later recall about her experience in trying to attend the school:

"They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling. I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me."

On September 9, Little Rock School District issued a statement condemning the governor's deployment of soldiers to the high school and called for a citywide prayer service on September 12. President Eisenhower at first attempted to inject reason into the situation and summoned Governor Faubus to meet him. The President warned the governor not to defy the Supreme Court's ruling. But Faubus was swayed more by how backing down would affect his electability. He refused Eisenhower's request.

Woodrow Wilson Mann, the Mayor of Little Rock, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine students. Although it was a difficult decision for the former five star general to use American troops against Americans, on September 24, the President ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock. He also federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the hands of Governor Faubus.

By the end of September 1957, the nine students were admitted to Little Rock Central High under the protection of the U.S. Army (and later the Arkansas National Guard). This action alone did not make it easy for them. They were subjected to physical and verbal abuse from many of the white students. The most serious incident was when Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes. Minnijean Brown was taunted by members of a group of white, male students in December 1957 in the school cafeteria during lunch. She dropped her lunch—a bowl of chili—onto the boys and was suspended for six days. Two months later, after more confrontation, Brown was suspended for the rest of the school year. She transferred to New Lincoln High School in New York City. White students were only punished when their offense was both egregious and witnessed by an adult.

Many of the contemporary documents relating to this incident can be found on the Eisenhower Library website here. In 2007, the United States Mint made available a commemorative silver dollar to "recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the fall of 1957." One side of the coin depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The other depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School. Proceeds from the coin sales are to be used to improve the National Historic Site. On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Eisenhower explained his actions in a radio and television address on September 24, 1957. He said:

"Our personal opinions about the decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement. The responsibility and authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution are very clear. Local Federal Courts were instructed by the Supreme Court to issue such orders and decrees as might be necessary to achieve admission to public schools without regard to race—and with all deliberate speed.

"During the past several years, many communities in our Southern States have instituted public school plans for gradual progress in the enrollment and attendance of school children of all races in order to bring themselves into compliance with the law of the land. They thus demonstrated to the world that we are a nation in which laws, not men, are supreme.

"I regret to say that this truth—the cornerstone of our liberties—was not observed in this instance.

"It was my hope that this localized situation would be brought under control by city and State authorities. If the use of local police powers had been sufficient, our traditional method of leaving the problems in those hands would have been pursued. But when large gatherings of obstructionists made it impossible for the decrees of the Court to be carried out, both the law and the national interest demanded that the President take action...

"Proper and sensible observance of the law then demanded the respectful obedience which the nation has a right to expect from all its people. This, unfortunately, has not been the case at Little Rock. Certain misguided persons, many of them imported into Little Rock by agitators, have insisted upon defying the law and have sought to bring it into disrepute. The orders of the court have thus been frustrated. The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the President and the Executive Branch of Government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the Federal Courts, even, when necessary with all the means at the President’s command.

"Unless the President did so, anarchy would result. There would be no security for any except that which each one of us could provide for himself. The interest of the nation in the proper fulfillment of the law’s requirements cannot yield to opposition and demonstrations by some few persons.

"Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

Better Days Ahead: Theodore Roosevelt Calls for Environmental Awareness

Long before it was cool to care for the environment, Theodore Roosevelt knew the importance of respecting the planet. In his day, the term was conservationist or naturalist, not environmentalist, but whatever label one puts on someone who cares about the long-term viability of the earth, Theodore Roosevelt was ahead of his time.

As a child, Roosevelt as home-schooled and he excelled in subjects such as biology, geology and history. One of his favorite areas of interest was ornithology (the study of birds) and he had even written on the subject as a young man. In 1884, after the death of his wife and his mother on the same day (Valentine's Day), his grief led him to leave New York and head west to the Badlands of the Dakotas. Roosevelt built a ranch that he named Elk Horn, thirty-five miles north of Medora, North Dakota. He learned to ride a horse western style, to rope and to hunt. He began writing about frontier life for national magazines and he also published three books: Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, and The Wilderness Hunter. He briefly served as a deputy sheriff, and he once pursued three outlaws who had stolen his riverboat and escaped north along the Little Missouri. He captured them and brought the thieves back to Dickinson, North Dakota, for trial.

Roosevelt organized local ranchers to address the problems of overgrazing and other concerns. He formed the Little Missouri Stockmen's Association, as well as another group that worked to coordinate conservation efforts, known as the Boone and Crockett Club. The club's main goal was the conservation of large game animals and their habitats. Roosevelt was especially concerned about the declining population among animals such as bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer and other game species. To Roosevelt, the problem was one of societal attitudes. He wrote:

"We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."

Roosevelt may well have stayed out west, but the extremely severe winter of 1886–1887 wiped out his herd of cattle, along with those of many other ranchers. He lost over half of his $80,000 investment, and decided to returned home to New York.

When he became President, Roosevelt's education and knowledge as a conservationist figured prominently in his policies. He placed what we now call environmental issues high on the national agenda. His chief advisor on environmental matters, was Gifford Pinchot, who served as the first Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905 until his firing in 1910. (Pinchot's firing by Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was one of the things that led to a falling out between the two during Taft's presidency). Pinchot was someone who was also passionate about the cause and who shared Roosevelt's point of view about protecting the environment.

Roosevelt encouraged Congress to pass the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. This law promoted federal construction of dams to irrigate small farms and placed 230 million acres (roughly 360,000 square miles) of land under federal protection. Roosevelt designated more Federal land, national parks, and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined.

Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service. He signed into law the creation of five National Parks, and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 new U.S. National Monuments. He also established the first 51 Bird Reserves, four Game Preserves, and 150 National Forests, including Shoshone National Forest, the nation's first designated national forest. He said:

"It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals -- not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening."

In May 1908, Roosevelt held the Conference of Governors at the White House. Its focus was on natural resources and their most efficient use. Roosevelt delivered the opening address, which was entitled "Conservation as a National Duty."

In 1903 Roosevelt toured the Yosemite Valley. He said of Yosemite, "It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man." Roosevelt wanted to minimize commercial use of water resources and forests. By this time the Sierra Club had been founded, and Roosevelt found them to be an ally in his cause. John Muir was the Sierra Club's founder, and in 1905 he and Roosevelt were successful in having Congress transfer the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley to the Federal Government.

When Congress opposed Roosevelt's efforts to create a national park at the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt used his executive power to protect it as a national monument. He said:

"In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

A 2016 book by Darrin Lunde tells about how Roosevelt championed the cause of protecting the environment. It is called The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History.

Pearl Harbor Day

Before there was 911, there was Pearl Harbor. Today is Pearl Harbor Day. It is the 82nd anniversary of the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941 (December 8 in Japan). The attack led to the United States' entry into World War II.

The attack was intended as a preventive strike that would keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with military actions that the Empire of Japan was planning in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States. There were also simultaneous Japanese attacks on the U.S.-held Philippines and on the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The attack began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time. The base was attacked by 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four being sunk. All but one were later raised, and six of the eight battleships returned to service and fought in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. 2,402 Americans were killed and 1,282 were wounded. Important base installations such as the power station, shipyard, maintenance, fuel and torpedo storage facilities, submarine piers and headquarters building (home of the intelligence section) were not attacked.

Japanese losses were comparatively light: 29 aircraft and 5 midget submarines were lost, and 65 servicemen killed or wounded. One Japanese sailor was captured.

The attack came as a profound shock to the American people and led directly to the American entry into World War II in both the Pacific and European theaters. The following day (December 8), the United States declared war on Japan. Domestic support for non-interventionism, which had been strong disappeared.

The lack of any formal warning, particularly while negotiations were still apparently ongoing, led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy". Roosevelt's speech had a unifying impact on the politics of the time. Thirty-three minutes after he finished speaking, Congress declared war on Japan, with only one Representative, Jeannette Rankin, voting against the declaration. The speech was broadcast live by radio and attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81 percent of American homes tuning in to hear the President. The response was overwhelmingly positive, both within and outside of Congress. The White House was inundated with telegrams praising the president's stance. Recruiting stations were jammed with a surge of volunteers and had to go on 24-hour duty to deal with the crowds seeking to sign up.

The anti-war and isolationist movement collapsed in the wake of the speech, with even the president's fiercest critics falling into line. Charles Lindbergh, who had been a leading isolationist, declared: “ Now it [war] has come and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our Government has followed. Our country has been attacked by force of arms, and by force of arms we must retaliate. We must now turn every effort to building the greatest and most efficient Army, Navy and Air Force in the world.”

Better Days Ahead: Ulysses Grant Fights The Clan

Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868, just over three years after the Civil War ended. At the time of his election, white supremacists were conducting a reign of terror throughout the South against African-Americans who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Although African-Americans had gained the vote in the south, Southern Democrats formed organizations that intimidated the freedmen through the use of violence. The most prominent of these organizations was the Ku Klux Klan.


The Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. It was originally founded purporting to be a social club for former Confederate soldiers, but the Klan quickly evolved into a terrorist organization. Over time the Klan would be responsible for thousands of deaths of African-Americans and of those who supported their cause, in an effort to weaken the political power of Republicans in the south.

In 1866, what began as a minor fight in Memphis, Tennessee, between white ex-Confederates and African-Americans who were former Union soldiers soon became a full-fledged riot. White policemen were supposed to keep the peace, but instead they assisted the mobs in their violent rioting through the African-American sections of the city. By the time the violence ended, 46 people were dead, 70 more were wounded, and numerous churches and schools had been burned. Just two months later, on July 30, a similar outbreak of violence occurred in New Orleans when a white mob attacked the attendees of a convention promoting suffrage among African-Americans. Thirty-seven black men and three white men who supported them were killed by their attackers.

The Ku Klux Klan grew in size and strength in the south and by the time Grant was elected in 1868, the Klan had become a hooded terrorist organization that its members called "The Invisible Empire of the South." The reorganized Klan's first leader, or "Grand Wizard," was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been a Confederate general during the Civil War. White Southerners from all classes of society joined the Klan's ranks. The Klan set as its goal the preservation of a white-dominated society. Klansmen targeted freedmen for the flimsiest of reasons, including behavior that they considered to be "impudent" toward whites. Their terrorist activities included whipping the teachers of freedmen's schools and buring their schoolhouses.

The Klan sought to eliminate Republican influence in the South by terrorizing and murdering its party leaders and all those who supported the party. In the time leading up to the 1868 presidential election, the Klan's activities increased both in frequency and in the level of brutality. The election had Grant running against Democrat Horatio Seymour. Grant's election was crucial for Republicans to continue their programs that would prevent Southern racist whites from gaining political control in their states. Klan members sought to prevent this by preventing the African-Americans in their communities from voting.

Across the South, the Klan and other terrorist groups used brutal violence to intimidate Republican voters. In Kansas, over 2,000 Republican supporters were murdered and in Georgia, an even greater number were beaten, threatened and otherwise intimidated. In Louisiana, 1000 African-Americans were killed as the election neared. In these three states, Democrats won decisive victories at the polls.

But the Klan's violent actions angered many Northerners, who felt that the South had not properly repented for its conduct in the recent war. In the 1868 presidential election, Grant won, running on the slogan, "Let Us Have Peace." Republicans also won a majority in Congress. Many Northerners, disgusted by Klan violence, lent their support to the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave the vote to African-American men in every state.

Grant was not content to stop there. He pressed for more legislation to attack the Klan directly. Between 1870 and 1871, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, which made it a crime to interfere with registration, voting, officeholding, or jury service by African-Americans. Over 5,000 people were indicted under these laws, though only 20% of those were convicted. In 1871 Congress also passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which allowed the government to act against terrorist organizations. Grant ordered the arrest of hundreds of Klan members, though with the overwhelming support of the Klan in the South, convictions proved difficult to obtain. To assist in the crackdown, Grant suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, as Abraham Lincoln had done during the war, which allowed the arrests of Klansmen to take place far more rapidly than they would have otherwise, because the authorities didn’t have to bring the persons arrested before a judge and charge them with a crime. As a result, many Klansmen fled their home counties, some fled their state and a few even fled the country.

Grant ordered his generals in the South to enforce the Reconstruction Act and the enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense. He created the Justice Department to deal with the prosecution of these offences and he sent in the army and federal agents to enforce the law.

Unfortunately for Grant, when the financial panic of 1873 hit, northerners were less inclined to see the federal government protect the freedmen from the problems of Southern racism, though this did not stop Grant from continuing his war on the Klan for the remainder of his term. When Rutherford Hayes became president in 1876, after a very controversial victory, he agreed to withdraw most federal troops from the south, removing much of the protection for the freedmen that Grant had installed. Grant's war on the Klan suffered a further setback in 1882, when the United States Supreme Court declared Ku Klux Klan Act unconstitutional.

For Ulysses Grant however, freedom and equal rights were matters of principle, not merely a means to gain more votes. Grant used his political capital to fight for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and this was one of the things that he remained most proud of in his life. He later said, “A measure which makes at once four million people voter who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land to be not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so, is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”

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Until recently, many historians had ranked Grant as among the worst presidents, because of the corruption and scandals that occurred on his watch. But recent analyses of Grant's presidency, including H. W. Brands' 2012 book The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, have viewed Grant's presidency more favorably. His reputation has significantly improved in recent years because of greater appreciation for his commitment to civil rights, and his moral courage in his prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan, and enforcement of voting rights.

Better Days Ahead: John Quincy Adams Speaks Out Against Slavery

John Quincy Adams was born into a family that never owned slaves, and was against the institution of slavery. His mother, Abigail Adams, held strong anti-slavery views. His father, President John Adams was also opposed to slavery, but had to hold his opinions in check, in order to keep a fragile nation united. Prior to his election to the presidency in 1824, John Quincy Adams was focused mainly on foreign policy.

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During his tenure as Secretary of State, the debate on the Missouri Compromise occurred in 1820. During that debate, Adams strongly disagreed with his friend John C. Calhoun, who became the most outspoken national leader in favor of slavery. Their relationship changed from friends to bitter enemies. Calhoun believed that the right to own slaves had to be protected from interference from the federal government in order to keep the nation alive, while Adams saw slavery as contrary to the principles of republicanism. Adams predicted that if the South formed a new nation, it would be torn apart by a violent slave insurrection. If the two nations went to war, Adams predicted the president of the United States would use his war powers to abolish slavery.

During his term as President, the issue of slavery did not come to the forefront and the status quo remained. When Adams lost his bid for re-election, the possibility of southern succession arose when Calhoun threatened that southern states would leave the union over the so-called Tariff of Abomination. President Andrew Jackson threatened to lead an army if the south threatened to secede and for the time being it appeared that both slavery and the union would remain intact.

In 1841, during the Presidency of Martin Van Buren, Adams represented the defendants in the landmark case of United States v. The Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court of the United States. He successfully argued that the Africans, who had seized control of a Spanish ship, La Amistad, on which they were being transported illegally as slaves, should not be extradited or deported to Cuba, but should be considered free. The government had argued that the Africans should be deported for having mutinied and killed officers on the ship. Adams won their freedom, and his clients were given the choice to either stay in the United States or return to Africa. He never billed for his services in the case. His argument before the justices of the court included an attack on the evils of slavery.

Adams had been elected to the United States House of Representatives in the 1830 elections as a National Republican. He was elected to eight terms, serving as a Representative for 17 years, from 1831 until his death in 1848. He became the leading antislavery voice in the Congress. His attack on the institution was so relentless that in 1836, southern congressmen voted in a rule, called the "gag rule," that called for the immediate tabling of any petitions about slavery. Congress had been flooded with petitions signed by citizens protesting slavery, with most originating from the Anti-Slavery Society based in New York.

The Gag rule prevented discussion of slavery from 1836 to 1844, but Adams frequently managed to evade it by his knowledge of parliamentary procedure. He refused to honor the House’s gag rule banning discussion or debate of the slavery issue and he evaded and ignored the gag rule until his persistence irritated his colleagues to the point that he was threatened with censure. The strategy backfired as Adams used this as an opportunity to speak at length against slavery in the course of the debate. The House never voted to censure Adams, and the discussion ignited by his actions and the attempts of others to quiet him raised questions of the right to petition, the right to legislative debate, and the morality of slavery. During the debate, Adams said that he was pleased that southerners would forever remember him as "the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that every existed".

Adams presented anti-slavery petitions in the House from the time he was first elected to the Congress. He considered it an issue of freedom of speech. He said that he personally disagreed with the demands for immediate abolition contained in the petitions, but he defended the right for the petitioners to be heard. The numbers of petitions approached the tens of thousands in the first months of 1836. When the "gag rule" was adopted and the presentation of any associated petitions were banned, all such petitions were tabled. Adams turned the issue from one of slavery to a debate on the propriety of the house censoring discussion of an important national issue. Adams demanded that the petitions be reviewed to determine if they violated the gag rule. He argued that the gag rule could not apply to petitions tabled before the rule came into effect. This argument was rejected and the gag rule applied retroactively. He tried a number of other tricks, but the gag rule prevailed.

On one occasion Adams asked for clarification as to whether it was within the rules of the House to present a petition signed by twenty-two enslaved persons. His question created pandemonium in the House. Congressman Dixon Hall Lewis of Alabama offered a motion that Congressman Adams be punished. Congressman Waddy Thompson brought a motion to censure the former president. The motion read:

Resolved, that J.Q. Adams, a member from the State of Massachusetts, by his attempt to introduce into this House a petition of slaves for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of the Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House; and by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House, and censured by the Speaker.

Adams’ responded first with as an intentionally understated attempt at correcting the misinformation in the censure proposal. Adams said: "The resolution charged him with attempting to present a petition from slaves asking for the abolition of slavery in the District of Colombia. In the first place, he would remind the House that he had not attempted to present the petition; he had simply asked for a ruling by the Speaker about the status of such a petition under the Hawes resolution". He also took issue with the claim that the petition was for the abolition of slavery. He said that the petition was actually not asking for the members to consider abolishing slavery, but in fact was supplicating in favor of the opposite view. Some members of the House believed that Adams was acting in contempt of the rules and decorum of the body. Many of the members of the House rose to publicly condemn Adams, but not all felt that he should be censured. Even two representatives of slaveholding states suggested that a censure of Adams could be conceived as an attack on the liberty of speech. The only two congressmen to vocally defend Adams during the debate over censuring him were his Massachusetts colleagues: Caleb Cushing and Levi Lincoln.

Adams took advantage of his right to defend himself in front of the members to speak for days against slavery and in favor of abolition. He spoke against the slave trade and the ownership of slaves. Adams went so far as to suggest the dissolution of the Union. As others continued to attack him and call for his censure, Adams continued to debate the issues of slavery and the evils of slaveholding. Adams had in effect lifted the gag rule by debating slavery on the House floor as part of his defense against censure.

On February 8, 1837, the United States House of Representatives voted to table the motion to censure Representative Adams. No further motion personal to Adams concerning his issue was accepted by the House.

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In 1846, the 78-year-old former president suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He made a full recovery and resumed his duties in Congress. On February 21, 1848, the House of Representatives was discussing the matter of honoring U.S. Army officers who served in the Mexican–American War. Adams had been a strong critic of the war, and as Congressmen rose up to say, "Aye!" in favor of the measure, he instead yelled, "No!" He rose to answer a question put forth by the Speaker of the House. He then collapsed, having suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Two days later, on February 23, he died with his wife and youngest son at his side in the Speaker's Room inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. His last words were "This is the last of earth. I am content." He died at 7:20 p.m. An little-known rookie congressman named Abraham Lincoln was assigned to the committee making the funeral arrangements.

Happy Birthday Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the last person, prior to the late George H. W. Bush, to serve as Vice-President under a two-term President and then win election to the presidency himself. Like the first President Bush, Van Buren was also a one-term president and lost his bid for re-election.

Martin Van Buren was the 8th President of the United States and today is his birthday. Van Buren, also known as "the Little Magician" for his political prowess, was born on December 5, 1782 (241 years ago today) in the village of Kinderhook, New York. His father Abraham Van Buren was a farmer and a tavern keeper who was also the owner of six enslaved persons. Although he would serve as Vice President in the administration of one of the most staunch defenders of the institution of slavery (Andrew Jackson), Little Van would later break with his party on that issue.


They called him "Little Van", most likely because he was one of the shortest Presidents at 5 feet, 6 inches. Van Buren was known as for his impeccable appearance, notwithstanding his humble background. This was something that was used against him by the Whig Party spin doctors in the election of 1840. As a young lawyer he became involved in New York politics rising to a lofty position in his New York political organization from which he dispensed public offices to optimum effect for his party. In 1821 was elected to the United States Senate.

By 1827 he had emerged as the principal northern leader for President Andrew Jackson. Jackson rewarded Van Buren by appointing him Secretary of State, which in those days gave one a leg up in the race to become president. Van Buren emerged as Jackson's most trusted adviser. Jackson described Van Buren as "a true man with no guile."

A rift developed in Jackson's Cabinet became serious because of Jackson's differences with Vice President John C. Calhoun over nullification of federal laws and also because of something called "the Petticoat Affair" in which the wives of Jackson's cabinet became very catty to Peggy Eaton, the wife of Jackson's Secretary of War. When Jackson asked for the resignations of his cabinet, Van Buren and Secretary Eaton resigned and Jackson appointed a new Cabinet. He rewarded Van Buren by appointing him Minister (Ambassador) to Great Britain. Vice President Calhoun, as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment. In response, Jackson dumped Calhoun from the Democratic Party ticket in the next election and replaced him with Van Buren, who was elected Vice President in 1832. Jackson groomed Van Buren to be his successor and Van Buren was elected President in 1836.

When Van Buren took office the country was prosperous, but less than three months later the panic of 1837 struck and that prosperity was gone quickly. Andrew Jackson's financial measures contributed to the crash, but the country blamed Van Buren. Jackson's destruction of the Second Bank of the United States had removed restrictions upon the inflationary practices of some state banks. Wild speculation in lands, based on easy bank credit, had swept the West. To end this speculation, in 1836 Jackson required that land be purchased with gold or silver. As a result hundreds of banks and businesses failed. Thousands lost their lands. For about five years the nation suffered the worst depression thus far in its history.

Van Buren's remedy was to continue Jackson's deflationary policies. It just made things worse. Van Buren opposed the creation of a new Bank of the United States and also opposed placing government funds in state banks. He fought for the establishment of an independent treasury system to handle Government transactions.

As President Van Buren was opposed to the expansion of slavery. He blocked the annexation of Texas because it would add to slave territory, an issue on which he broke with his mentor, Old Hickory. Van Buren was defeated by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in his 1840 bid for reelection in the "Whiskey and Hard Cider" campaign, which utilized the "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" slogan and song.

Van Buren ran for his party's nomination for President again in the next election (1844), but without Jackson's support there was no chance of his getting the required two-thirds majority vote among the delegates. He ran for President yet again in 1848, this time on the Free Soil Party ticket (an anti-slavery party), but he lost once again.

Van Buren retired to his home in Kinderhook. He was one of five ex-presidents still living when the Civil War broke out. He met with Abraham Lincoln, and once the war began, Van Buren made public his support for the Union. He supported Lincoln's efforts to prevent the southern states from seceding. After being bedridden with a case of pneumonia during the fall of 1861, Martin Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862. He was 79 years old.

Better Days Ahead: James Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings

Many presidents have, in one form or another, made the claim of being "a uniter, not a divider". But one of the first Presidents to best exemplify this phrase was probably James Monroe. He became President following the end of the War of 1812, a war that the nation was unprepared for and a war which did not enjoy universal support throughout the nation. A rift developed between the New England states and the southern states. Citizens of the former had no desire to go to war with the British because of the injurious effect that the war had on their local industry due to the loss of trade. But citizens from the other states were more amped up to go to war. When the war ended with better results in some parts of the nation than in others, divisions existed. It was up to James Monroe to heal these divisions. He did so to such an extent that much of his presidency was characterized by what was called the "Era of Good Feelings".


As president, James Monroe was expected to harmonize the diverse factions within the country and to create a common national outlook, rather than one based on regional or party interests. He did so in a surprising way at first. He declined to appoint a federalist to his cabinet, despite being urged to do so as a means of keeping the peace. He did not want to continue a climate of "us vs. them" and felt that appointing a Federalist would only serve to continue competing factions. He said that all political parties were by their very nature, incompatible with free government. He believed that the business of governing was best conducted by disinterested statesmen, acting exclusively in the national interest – not on behalf of sectional interests or personal ambition. His policy had precedent in the arguments put forth by President George Washington in his farewell address in 1796 and his warnings against political "factions."

In his public statements, Monroe was careful to avoid comments that could be perceived as politically partisan. He never attacked the Federalist party, in fact he never even mentioned them. In his private encounters with Federalists, he was courteous and civil.

Perhaps the most magnanimous thing he did was to embark on two country-wide good-will tours, the first in 1817 and the second in 1819. Most importantly, he went into the heart of what for a Virginian Republican was enemy country: New England. He traveled to the Federalist stronghold of Boston, Massachusetts, and he was warmly received, in large measure because his remarks were non-partisan, with a goal of unifying the nation. It was on this trip that the phrase "Era of Good Feelings" was coined by a local Federalist journal.

On the tour Monroe, a Revolutionary War veteran himself, donned a Revolutionary War officer's uniform. Despite this no longer being the style, he tied his long powdered hair in a queue. Contemporary accounts of Monroe's appearances on the tour praise him for his "agreeable" impression, his charm, his dignity and for his "unusual ability to put men at their ease by his courtesy, lack of condescension, his frankness, and what his contemporaries looked upon as the essential goodness and kindness of heart which he always radiated" (in the words of his biographer Harry Ammon).

Monroe's visit to Boston elicited strong feelings of nationalist pride and expressions of reconciliation. New England Federalists were quick to demonstrate their loyalty. Monroe was welcomed with banquets, parades and receptions. Monroe later wrote that many of the New England Federalists appeared anxious "to get back into the great family of the union." Monroe understood the cathartic value in allowing Federalists the opportunity "by solemn public demonstrations to reaffirm their loyalty to the government and their acceptance of Republican control." Monroe was diligent about avoiding any remarks or expressions that might chasten, criticize or humiliate his hosts. He presented himself as the nation's head of state, and not as the leader of a triumphant political party.

The strategy not only had value in healing the nation's wounds, it was also a wise political strategy. In the years that followed, all New England states other than Massachusetts were in Republican Party hands. In 1820 Monroe was re-elected almost unanimously. He received every vote in the electoral college except for one, that by an elector who believed that the honor of unanimous electoral victory belonged to Washington alone. The only political downside to the strategy was that instead of the Republicans running against the Federalists in 1824, the candidates for the presidency came out of split factions within the party itself.

Monroe deserves credit for healing a divided nation and for displaying benevolence to his defeated political enemies, and most importantly for putting his role as head of state first, ahead of his role as leader of a political party.

Better Days Ahead: Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

On March 4, 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was set to deliver his second inaugural address, it looked as if there were better days ahead. It was a foregone conclusion that the Civil War would soon be at an end and that the Confederacy would be soundly defeated. The Confederate Army was running low on able-bodied soldiers and on the supplies of war, and General Ulysses Grant's army was playing a game of cat and mouse with that of his adversary Robert E. Lee. Southern hopes for a negotiated peace were dashed when Lincoln was re-elected the previous November, and many in the north were calling for retribution. They wanted the southern secessionists to pay for dividing the country and causing the war with all of its needless death and destruction.

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But when Abraham Lincoln spoke that day, he struck a more conciliatory and benevolent tone. His words were not resentful, nor were they vengeful. Lincoln would famously state that he had "malice toward none and charity for all" in a show of remarkable magnanimity towards those who had opposed him.

The day had begun auspiciously. Just before Lincoln was slated to take the oath of office as President for the second time, his newly elected Vice-President Andrew Johnson was sworn in, and Johnson was, to use the vernacular, "three sheets to the wind." A crowd estimated at around fifty thousand had gathered at the Capitol to witness Lincoln's inauguration, and before that ceremony began, a much smaller group of invited guests entered the Senate chamber for the first part of the ceremony. This included a farewell address by the outgoing vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, followed by Johnson's swearing in. Shortly before noon, the dignitaries for this ceremony arrived, which included a number of generals, governors, the justices of the Supreme Court, the cabinet and finally the president himself, whose chair was positioned in the middle of the front row. Mary Todd Lincoln was seated in the Diplomatic Gallery, surrounded by members of the foreign ministries, wearing their fanciest uniforms.

After Hamlin delivered a very dignified farewell address, Johnson rose to take the oath. His face was "extraordinarily red," he was, as a police officer today might describe an impaired driver, "unsteady on his feet." Some described him as being "in a state of manifest intoxication." For twenty minutes he spoke incoherently, repeatedly reminding his audience of his "plebeian" background and his humble roots. He told his audience that he was proud that one so humble as he "could rise from the ranks under the Constitution, to the proud position of the second place in the gift of the people." He then lectured the Supreme Court justices about how they received their "power from the people." Next he spoke to the members of the cabinet, and addressed each secretary by name, until he reached Gideon Welles, whose name he could not remember. He loudly asked someone seated close by, "what's the name of the Secretary of the Navy?" Johnson ignored Hamlin's request that he wrap it up so that Lincoln's inauguration ceremony could begin. Lincoln listened patiently in silence. Days later he would tell a friend "you need not be scared, Andy had made a bad slip, but he aint a drunkard."

After Johnson finished, the audience proceeded outside to the east front of the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony. Journalist Noah Brooks famously wrote that when Lincoln stepped to the platform, "the sun which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor and flooded the spectacle with glory and light."

Some in the crowd were expecting a speech praising recent Union victories and excoriating the rebels. Those persons would be disappointed. Lincoln did not gloat. He took a more magnanimous view. He called for a sympathetic understanding of the citizens in the South. To Lincoln, the differences between northerners and southerners were not insurmountable. He reminded his audience that "both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let is judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes."

Lincoln told his audience that God had given "to both North and South this terrible war" as punishment for their shared sin of slavery. He famously called for national reconciliation with these words:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

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When Lincoln's address was finished, the crowd cheered loudly, the artillery fired a round of salutes, the band played, and the peaceful ceremony drew to a close. Sadly, in less than a month and a half, Lincoln would be dead and he would not be around to lead the nation to the peaceful reconciliation that he envisioned.

Better Days Ahead: A Republic - If You Can Keep It

In September of 1787, delegates from the 13 colonies, now independent, met in Philadelphia to formulate a constitution. Up to then, the colonies had been operating under an agreement known as the Articles of Confederation. There was general agreement that this document offered insufficient protection, as evidenced by the recent American Revolution, and in the aftermath as many in the colonies were left with post-war debt and other aspects of political dysfunction, there was consensus that something better was needed, but not on what that something better precisely was.

One of the delegates to the convention was James McHenry from Maryland. He kept a journal that now is kept at the anuscript Division of the Library of Congress. In the journal, McHenry records an event that occurred of the last day of the convention, September 18, 1787. In his journal, he wrote:

“A lady asked Dr. Franklin, 'Well Doctor, what have we got a republic or a monarchy?' 'A republic,' replied the Doctor, 'if you can keep it.' The Lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.”

The day was supposed to began with the famed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin reading a prepared speech. Franklin was then eighty-one years old and at the time he was suffering from gout and kidney stone, and the pain he was experiencing prevented him from reading the speech himself, so he delegated that task to James Wilson, another Pennsylvania delegate. The speech was formally addressed to George Washington, who had agreed to serve as the Convention’s president. But it was really an attempt to convince the three delegates who had announced their refusal to sign the Constitution to change their mind. The three were Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Edmund Randolph of Virgina, and George Mason, also of Virginia.

Franklin began his address with candor, admitting that he didn't believe the proposed Constitution to be a perfect document. He wrote:

“I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government, but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government.”

Franklin weny on to argue that he didn’t think that any another Convention, including that proposed by Mason and Randolph, would do any better than the one he was supporting. He recognized that the men in the room had a diversity of background and of opinions, making it near impossible to find common ground. He said, “From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does." He went on to add, "Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”

Franklin went on to say:

“On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention, who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

Franklin then made a motion that the document be signed as follow: “Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the States present, the seventeenth of September, &c. In witness whereof, we have hereunto subscribed our names.” It was significant that the wording did not explicitly state that the signer was endorsing the Constitution, but only that the signer was affirming that the states present in the Convention unanimously approved the Constitution. It was a nice try, but still not good enough to get Gerry, Mason, and Randolph to sign.

On the last day of the Convention, George Washington spoke for the only time. He said it was generally inappropriate for him, as president of the Convention, to offer his opinion, but he endorsed a motion to increase the size of the House of Representatives as the population of the nation grew, stating that this would increase the “security of the rights and the interests of the people.” No one spoke in opposition to the motion, and it passed unanimously.

Edmund Randolph gave a brief speech in which je sounded somewhat apologetic about refusing to sign the Constitution. He left open the possibility that he might support the Constitution when Virginia considered ratifying it. Other delegates, including Gouveneur Morris of Pennsylvania, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, Alexander Hamilton of New York and James Madison of Virginia, gave speeches encouraging the holdouts to sign. Hamilton said, "Is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other?”

Through his pain, Franklin gave a second speech in which he personally begged Randolph to sign. Randolph replied that Franklin’s proposed form for the signatures didn’t make a difference because he believed that his signing the Constitution would imply that he supported it, which he did not. James Madison later wrote of Randolph, “He repeated that, in refusing to sign the Constitution, he took a step which might be the most awful of his life; but it was dictated by his conscience, and it was not possible for him to hesitate, — much less, to change.”

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina spoke and made it clear that he supported the Constitution and intended his signature to be a sign of that support.

Franklin’s motion (related to the form of the signing) passed by a margin of 10 to 1, with South Carolina’s vote divided among its delegates. (Rhode Island was the only former colony which did not send any delegates to the Convention. The delegates then proceeded to sign the engrossed copy of the United States Constitution. Thirty-eight men signed thirty-nine names. John Dickinson of Delaware was ill and he had asked fellow Delaware delegate George Read to sign for him. But despite all the personal appeals and pleading, Gerry, Randolph, and Mason still refused to sign. The signatures were grouped by state, with Pennsylvania’s eight being the most. The listing of state names next to the signatures appears to be in the hand of Alexander Hamilton. Rhode Island, the only state not to send delegates to the Convention, was not listed. After the signing, the Convention adjourned for a final time.

The Constitution would only go into effect when nine of the thirteen states chose to ratify it. It was now up to supporters of the Constitution to convince the American people to embrace the government that these men had authored.

As the last names were being signed, Franklin made an observation to some of the other members about the chair that Washington had been sitting in as he presided over the Convention. The chair had an emblem of half of a sun. Franklin remarked how artists often have a hard time distinguishing between a rising and a setting sun in their artwork. He went on to say, “I have often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

“Mrs. Powel of Philada.” was Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia. None of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were women, but in spite of this, Mrs. Powel was a mover and shaker in Philadelphia social and political circles. Her father Charles Willing and brother Thomas Willing were wealthy merchants. Her husband Samuel Powel was also very prosperous. All three of these men were active in Philadelphia’s political and civic life and all three had served as mayor of Philadelphia at one time. Among the regulars at Powel’s dinners and parties were George and Martha Washington, with whom the Powels became close friends. Letters exchanged between the couples are in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

Many years later, in the fall of 1792, nearing the end of his first term as President, Washington began planning his exit. Elizabeth Willing Powel was among those convinced Washington to stay for a second term. In a letter to Washington, she warned him that his political opponents would see his resignation as a sign that he believed the republican experiment had failed. She pleaded with him: “For Gods sake do not yield to a Love of Ease, Retirement, rural Pursuits.”

Years later, after the anecdote about the conversation between Mrs. Powel and Franklin had been published in the newspapers, Powel herself claimed to have forgotten it. “I have no recollection of any such conversations,” she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1814. “Yet I cannot venture to deny after so many Years have elapsed that such conversations had passed. I well remember to have frequently associated with the most respectable, influential Members of the Convention that framed the Constitution, and that the all-important Subject was frequently discussed at our House.”

Better Days Ahead: George Washington's Commitment to Democracy

In the rotunda of the Capitol Building there is a painting by John Trumbull entitled "General George Washington Resigning His Commission." It marks a significant historical event, as the general who commanded the army whose victory created a nation declined the opportunity to become the monarch of that nation, or worse, a dictator. Washington certainly was popular enough to do so, and he had the support of his army, if he had been possessed of kingly or even dictatorial aspirations. But he was not. Washington wisely resigned his commission at the end of the war and turned the governing of the nation over to civilian authority.

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island to aid Washington's Continental Army in the war effort. French naval forces landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. Washington had initially planned to take the fight to the British in New York, but Rochambeau advised that the army of General Cornwallis in Virginia was a better target and de Grasse followed Rochambeau's advice and sailed to the Virginia Coast. Washington agreed that Rochambeau's proposed strategy was a better one and after leaving the false impression that he was taking his forces to fight General Clinton in New York, he headed south to Virginia instead.

After a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia, the army of General Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. This marked the end of major fighting in continental North America. When Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, sending General Charles Oharrow as his proxy, Washington had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender. Cornwallis likely feigned illness, in order to avoid the humiliation of having to surrended his army to "a mere colonial."

The British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston and Savannah, together with a powerful fleet. Soon the French army and navy departed, leaving the Americans on their own, with an empty treasury and unpaid soldiers who were growing restless. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress came up with the promise of a five-year bonus.

The initial peace treaty articles were ratified in April of 1783, and on May 2, 1783, Washington, as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, submitted his views on a peacetime army. His original proposal was defeated in Congress in two votes held in May 1783, and in October 1783. A third version was also rejected in April 1784.

By the Treaty of Paris, signed in September of 1783, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and, on November 2, gave his eloquent farewell address to his soldiers. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally said farewell to his officers and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. He said:

"I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."

Historians have since recognized the significance and the magnanimity of Washington's resignation as commander of the armies. It marked the first time that the nation had transitioned from wartime to peacetime, and it was unique in that the military did not exert more control over the newly formed government, with Washington opting instead to have faith in democracy. King George III called Washington "the greatest character of the age" because of this.


This would of course not be Washington's last service to his country, nor would it be the last time that he acted with magnanimity, humility and generosity. It was a promising start for the new nation. It was a commitment to integrity, and to national interests above personal ones, and it was a committment to democracy.