Presidential Affairs: The Disappearance of Grace Coolidge

In the summer of 1927 Grace Coolidge was the central figured in a so-called “scandal” which was sensationalized in the press at the time. The incident occurred during the presidential vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Grace Coolidge went on a hike deep into the woods with her unmarried Secret Service agent James Haley. The two got lost and no one knew where they were for several hours longer than they were supposed to be gone for. The first lady's long absence led her husband to angrily order Haley off the First Lady’s protective detail. Reporters present at the time inferred that there was some vaguely romantic side to the close friendship between Haley and the first lady. Whether or not this was the case is something that only Haley and Grace know for sure, though most historians assert that the relationship was an innocent one. Many decades later, when letters now in the Coolidge Presidential Center archives came to light, it revealed that Grace Coolidge felt so strongly that her husband’s impulsive decision to dismiss Haley from the presidential detail had unfairly reflected poorly on Haley’s professionalism, that she contacted the head of the Secret Service to lobby on Haley's behalf, without telling her husband about this.

In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge summered at a location far from Washington D.C., in Custer State Park, located near Rapid City, South Dakota. Besides getting a break from Washington, Coolidge had a second purpose for choosing this location, that being to meet sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the man who would design Mount Rushmore. Coolidge had met Gutzon Borglum earlier on during his presidency and had approved Borglum's plan to mint commemorative coins which Borglum hoped to raise funds to carve a mountain into sculpture. Although the Stone Mountain coins were minted, Borglum never completed the project, reportedly because he was too temperamental for the project managers to deal with.

Coolidge did not particularly like Borglum. He was reported to have once said to a visitor, "About how far would y'say 'tis from here to the Black Hills?" The visitor replies "Oh, I don't know, Mr. President, I'd guess maybe fifteen hundred miles." To this Coolidge replied "Well, y'know that's about as close to Mr. Borglum as I care to be."

In 1927, President Coolidge decided on a summer away from Washington where a scheduled White House renovation was taking place. The Washington, D.C. air in the summer irritated his bronchitis. A number of South Dakota politicians lobbied the President to get him to spend his vacation in the Black Hills. The idea appealed to the President and on June 13, 1927, Calvin and Grace Coolidge arrived in Rapid City.

By all accounts the Coolidges enjoyed their stay in South Dakota. They attended a local church and spent time going out and visiting different areas of the state in a low-key manner. The South Dakotans responded kindly and favorably. They presented their President with a horse, a large-brimmed Western hat, and boots as gifts. The president adopted the hat and boots as his local costume.

Their residence at Custer State Park was known as the Game Lodge. There Grace Coolidge would sit and knit on the porch where her husband went trout fishing. By many accounts Coolidge was quite successful as a trout fisherman, even though he had never tried it before this trip. Unbeknownst to Coolidge, to make sure he enjoyed his stay, the locals had the creek stocked with big fat fish from a local hatchery. Whether it was the good fishing or the friendly people, Coolidge decided to extend his visit from three weeks to three months.

It was on this trip that the incident involving the First Lady and Haley became sensationalized in the press. Some have speculated that the death of the Coolidge's son John in 1924 put a strain on their marriage, but this is not a generally accepted theory. Grace and Haley had left on their hike at 9:00 a.m. that morning and the first lady was reported to have been walking at a brisk pace. When Coolidge returned home for lunch at one o'clock, he was upset that his wife was not there. He was described as "pacing the porch nervously" and becoming increasingly upset by her absence. At 2:15 p.m. Coolidge was arranging for a search party, just as the tired Mrs. Coolidge returned from the hike. She cheerily greeted him, saying "Hello papa, sorry to keep you waiting!" Coolidge was unamused. He had a private word with her and the contents of their discussion have not been recorded for posterity.

The Boston Herald ran a story about the incident with the headline "Wife's Long Hike Vexes Coolidge: President Paces Porch as First Lady Hits 15 Mile Trail". The Boston Post ran a similar headline which read "First Lady Almost Lost: President Worried, On Point of Forming Search Party Just as Mrs. Coolidge Returns". The Boston Globe Headline read "Wife's Delay Taxes Coolidge's Patience. She Goes Off on Long Hike and Luncheon Gets Cold. President Sits on Porch an Hour Waiting for Her to Explain". A few days later, the Globe headline read "Haley Out as Mrs. Coolidge's Escort".

Although Coolidge tried to keep somewhat of a low profile and to limit his public appearances during his summer vacation, Gutzon Borglum convinced the president to dedicate the Mount Rushmore site. This took place on August 10, 1927. In the ceremony, Coolidge made a speech in which he said:

"We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty. The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting Black Hills of South Dakota will be distinctly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning. No one can look upon it without realizing it is a picture of hope fulfilled. Its location will be significant. Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially loved by Roosevelt."

Coolidge presented Borglum with six steel drill bits with which the artist would start carving the hill. Borglum asked Coolidge to write the explanatory inscription Borglum envisioned as part of the sculpture. He said to Coolidge:

"Mr. Coolidge! As the first president who has taken part in this great undertaking, please write the inscription to be carved on that mountain! We want your connection with it shown in some other way than just by your presence! I want the name of Coolidge on that mountain!"

Unfortunately, when the mountain was sculpted, there was no room for the inscription, and the subsequent depression economy restricted the proposed scope of the project. But Coolidge's goodwill was helpful in the effort to raise funds for the monument; he signed the first large appropriation bill for the project just days before the end of his presidency.

Presidential Affairs: Warren Harding and Nan Britton

Scandal is one of the first words one associates with the Presidency of Warren Harding. Some speculate that worry about scandal might have been what killed Harding, when he died unexpectedly on a western trip in 1923. Many of the scandals were the result of misplaced trust that Harding had for his friends. He once famously said, "“I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they're the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!" While most of the scandals of the Harding administration were caused by dishonest and greedy friends of the president, Harding himself frequently went offside when it came to the matter of his wedding vows.

Harding wasn't all bad, and in fact I've said a lot of nice things about Harding in this community, particularly about his courage in going to the heart of the south to speak out in favor of the rights of African-Americans. Harding is probably best known for those scandals that happened on his watch in which corrupt underlings pilfered from the public purse. The Teapot Dome scandal is the most famous. But Harding also had a propensity for scandal when it came to his dalliances with the opposite sex. On July 8, 1891, Warren Harding, who was then the editor and owner of the Marion (Ohio) Star newspaper, married divorcee Florence Kling, the daughter of his competitor Amos Kling. Florence was five years older than Harding and he called her "the Duchess" based on a character in a serial that ran in The New York Sun. The Duchess was a character who kept a close eye on the Duke and their money, running anything that required efficiency. Harding was candid about the fact that he had trouble keeping faithful to his wife. He once told a party of reporters at the National Press Club: "It's a good thing I am not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can't say no."

Harding didn't just go offside with one woman. As his Attorney-General Harry Daugherty put it, "no president had more women scrapes" than Daugherty's boss. Harding reportedly had affairs with Susie Hodder (his wife's best friend from childhood – allegedly resulting in the birth of a daughter), with his wife's closest adult friend, Carrie Fulton Phillips (the affair lasted for 15 years and produced some salacious letters); and with his Senate aide, Grace Cross. Perhaps the most infamous was with a young woman named Nan Britton.

Nan Britton was born in 1896 in Marion, Ohio, where Harding ran the local newspaper. Nan developed an obsession with Harding, who was a friend of her father. As a young girl, she posted pictures of Harding on her bedroom walls, cut out of local papers and magazines. As a teenager, she would hang around his Marion Daily Star building in Marion, Ohio, hoping to see him on his walk home from work. Nan's father, Dr. Britton, spoke to Harding about his daughter's adulation for him, and Harding met with her. Harding told her father that he had explained to Nan that some day she would find "the man of her dreams." At the time, Harding was involved in his affair with Carrie Phillips, wife of James Phillips, co-owner of a local department store.

When Nan graduated from high school in 1914, she moved to New York City, to begin a career as a secretary. It was at that time that she claimed she also began an intimate relationship with Harding. Harding was 31 years older than her. In his wonderful book 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (reviewed here), author David Pietrusza gives this amusing account of one of the encounters that then-Senator Harding had in 1917 with Ms. Britton in which their amorous encounter was interrupted by two hotel detectives (told at page 79 of the book):

It was not the most romantic of experiences. Shortly after, the phone rang. "You've got the wrong number" Harding barked into the receiver. There was a hard knock at the door. Two men stormed in demanding Nan's name. "Tell them the truth' Harding balefully advised. "They've got us."

He sat on the bed, pleading with the intruders. "I'll answer for both, won't I? Let this poor little girl go." They curtly informed him he should have considered her safety before registering for a room. They asked her age. Harding lied "she's twenty-two" he said. Nan interrupted to say she was really twenty, another lie.

Every time Harding raised an objection, the men snapped "tell that to the judge." They were about to call the police, when one of them picked up the Senator's hat. Inside, he read the gold inscription "W. G. Harding." Nan thought the two men became instantly calm, even respectful.

The embarrassed couple finished dressing and was escorted to a side entrance. Harding slipped one man twenty dollars. Safely inside a taxi, he turned to his paramour confiding "Gee Nan, I never thought I would get out of that for under a thousand dollars."

Following Harding's death, Britton wrote a book about her affair with Harding entitled The President's Daughter, published in 1928, in which she claimed she had been Harding's mistress throughout his presidency, and that Harding was the father of her daughter, Elizabeth Ann (1919–2005). In one passage in the book, Britton writes about their making love in a coat closet in the executive office of the White House.

In the book, Nan Britton claimed that, for six and a half years, she and Harding maintained their affair, meeting wherever possible, including in Harding’s Senate office. It was there Ms. Britton wrote that they conceived Elizabeth Ann, who was born in October 1919. Harding never met his daughter but provided financial support. He and Ms. Britton continued their relationship after he became president.

According to Britton, Harding had promised to support their daughter, but after his sudden death in 1923, first lady Florence Harding refused to honor the obligation. Britton claimed that she wrote the book to earn money to the support her daughter and to champion the rights of illegitimate children. She was the plaintiff in a lawsuit in which she alleged that Harding was the father of her child, but she was unable to provide any concrete evidence to support her allegation. Her credibility was called into question by vicious personal attacks made by former Congressman Grant Mouser (who practiced law in Marion) during her cross-examination. Nan Britton had a difficult time proving her relationship because she had destroyed her own letters with Harding at his request and because Harding's family insisted that the president was sterile.

In 1964, the discovery of more than 250 love letters between Harding and Carrie Phillips of Marion Ohio gave further support to Britton's claims. At that time Britton was living in Chicago, but she refused to grant an interview. In the 1980s, Britton and her extended family moved to Oregon, where her three grandchildren currently live. Nan Britton died in 1991 in Sandy, Oregon, where she had lived during the last years of her life. She insisted until her death that Harding was her daughter's father.

In August of 2015, Jim Blaesing, Nan Britton's grandson, decided to have his DNA tested to determine if he had any of Harding's DNA. The tests did indeed confirm that Nan Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was in fact Harding’s biological child. For many years after Harding's death, Nan Britton was vilified and denounced as a someone who was lying to get money and accused of waging a campaign of falsehoods against the Harding’s. It's unfortunate that her vindication came 24 years after her death.

Dr. Peter Harding, a grandnephew of the president, instigated the DNA testing that confirmed paternity of the child. As a boy growing up, Peter Harding believed what his family had told him. In 2015 he told Peter Baker of the New York Times, “My father said this couldn’t have happened because President Harding had mumps as a kid and was infertile and the family really vilified Nan Britton.” Later, Dr. Harding and his cousin, Abigail Harding, decided to pursue the matter. They made contact with James Blaesing, a grandson of Nan Britton and son of the daughter she claimed to have conceived with the president. Testing by AncestryDNA, a division of the genealogical website found that Mr. Blaesing was a second cousin to Peter and Abigail Harding, meaning that Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had to be President Harding’s daughter. According to Stephen Baloglu, an executive at Ancestry, “The technology that we’re using is at a level of specificity that there’s no need to do more DNA testing. This is the definitive answer.”

According to James Blaesing, Nan Britton was devastated by Harding's sudden death. He told Peter Baker, “She loved him until the day she died. When she talked about him, she would get the biggest smile on her face. She just loved this guy. He was everything.” He also remembered how his grandmother was belittled and scorned by many people. His mother, who died in 2005, was not interested in seeking DNA evidence confirming paternity. But her son felt differently. He said, “I wanted to prove who she was and prove everyone wrong.”

Presidential Affairs: Woodrow Wilson and the First Lady's Acting Presidency

In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson made a decision to personally attend the Paris Peace Conference. Although the airplane had been invented and used in the Great War that had just ended, air travel was not yet a common means of travel, and Wilson made the trek by ship. He spent six months in Paris for the Peace Conference, becoming the first President to travel to Europe while in office, and also the first to visit the Pope. Traveling aboard the George Washington, Wilson arrived in Brest on December 13, 1919 and remained in Paris for two months, leaving the negotiations and departing for home February 14, 1919 for home. He returned to Paris three weeks later and remained until the conclusion of a treaty in June. While at the conference, on April 3, Wilson became violently ill during a conference meeting, apparently suffering from influenza. Though his symptoms receded within a couple of days, many around him would later state that they noticed a deterioration in his condition.

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This was not his first sign of receding health. Less than a year earlier, while U.S. troops were still fighting in Europe, Wilson sought treatment for a breathing problem. White House doctor Cary T. Grayson, later recounted the incident to his wife, in which he wrote: "The patient is progressing most satisfactorily, so far, and I have good reasons to hope for a most beneficial result. It has been a big undertaking. No one knows anything about it except Miss E., Miss Harkins, and [White House Chief Usher Ike] Hoover. It is one secret that has been kept quiet, so far, and I think it is safe all right now."

Wilson returned home from the conference to cheering crowds. But his popularity was soon to wane as Republicans in Congress fought Wilson over American entry into the proposed League of Nations. Ratification of the treaty required a two-thirds vote from the Republican-controlled Senate and public opinion over the treaty and the League was mixed. Groups opposed to the terms of the treaty included most Republicans, Germans, and Irish Catholic Democrats. In numerous meetings with Senators, Wilson discovered opposition was firm, and Wilson was not of a mind to accept some of the compromises proposed despite his weak bargaining position. He decided that if he could not convince the senators directly, he would take his case to the people in an effort to have them pressure their senators to vote to ratify the treaty. Wilson scheduled 29 major speeches and many other short addresses to audiences across the nation in an effort to rally support for his position.

The tour never completed as planned. While on the tour he showed signs of physical strain. A special train left Washington on September 3 making stops all across the country. Wilson spoke from the rear platform of the train. He would deliver a speech to the gathered crowd, and then the train wood speed off to the next stop. It was a grueling schedule and it began to take its toll on Wilson's health. He began to suffer severe asthma attacks and splitting headaches, starting in Montana. In Colorado, his headaches almost blinded him and in Wichita, his doctor found Wilson in what Grayson described as close to a "complete breakdown." In Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed before giving his speech. He never fully recovered and the trip was cut short. On September 26, 1919 the train headed back to Washington.

On the morning of October 2, first lady Edith Wilson found her husband unconscious on the bathroom floor of their private White House quarters bleeding from a cut on his head. It was later determined that Wilson had suffered a stroke. A massive attack left his left side paralyzed and impaired his vision. Mrs. Wilson immediately summoned Dr. Grayson.

Ike Hoover, who served as Wilson's Chief Usher and who was responsible for managing the everyday activities of the presidential mansion, had accompanied Wilson on his trip to the Paris Peace Conference where he first become alarmed at changes in the President's behavior and suspected his health was failing. Hoover later wrote about what happened on the morning of October 2:

"At exactly ten minutes before nine o'clock on this memorable day (I noted the time in writing the same day), my telephone on the desk in the Usher's Room at the White House rang and Mrs. Wilson's voice said, 'Please get Doctor Grayson, the President is very sick.' The telephone used was a private one that did not go through the general telephone switchboard. Mrs. Wilson had come all the way out to the end of the upper hall to use this particular telephone instead of the regular one in their bedroom. I reasoned at the time that it was done to avoid publicity, for there had been talk about the operators of the switchboard listening in and distributing information they picked up. I immediately called Doctor Grayson at his home, repeated the message as Mrs. Wilson had given it to me, and ordered one of the White House automobiles to go for him with all haste. I then went upstairs to see if there was anything I could do. I waited up there until Doctor Grayson came, which was but a few minutes at most. A little after nine, I should say, Doctor Grayson attempted to walk right in, but the door was locked. He knocked quietly and, upon the door being opened, he entered. I continued to wait in the outer hall. In about ten minutes Doctor Grayson came out and with raised arms said, 'My God, the President is paralyzed! Send for Doctor Stitt and the nurse.'

"The second doctor and nurse arrived and were shown to the room. The employees about the place began to get wise to the fact that the President was very ill, but they could find out nothing more. Other doctors were sent for during the day, and the best that could be learned was that the President was resting quietly. Doctor Davis of Philadelphia and Doctor Ruffin, Mrs. Wilson's personal physician, were among those summoned. There were doctors everywhere. A consultation of them all together was held about four o'clock. An air of secrecy had come over things during the day. Those on the outside, including family and employees, could learn nothing. It was my privilege to go into the sick-room in the late afternoon. Some rearrangement of the furnishing had to be made and the domestic attendants on the floor were not allowed in. So Doctor Grayson, the nurse, and I did the job.

"The President lay stretched out on the large Lincoln bed. He looked as if he were dead. There was not a sign of life. His face had a long cut about the temple from which the signs of blood were still evident. His nose also bore a long cut lengthwise. This too looked red and raw. There was no bandage. Soon after, I made confidential inquiry as to how and when it all happened. I was told - and know it to be right - that he had gone to the bathroom upon arising in the morning and was sitting on the stool when the affliction overcame him; that he tumbled to the floor, striking his head on the sharp plumbing of the bathtub in his fall; that Mrs. Wilson, hearing groans from the bathroom, went in and found him in an unconscious condition. She dragged him to the bed in the room adjoining and came out into the hall to call over the telephone for the doctor, as I have related. For the next three or four days the White House was like a hospital. There were all kinds of medical apparatus and more doctors and more nurses. Day and night this went on. All the while the only answer one could get from an inquiry as to his condition was that it 'showed signs of improvement.' No details, no explanations. This situation seemed to go on indefinitely. It was perhaps three weeks or more before any change came over things. I had been in and out of the room many times during this period and I saw very little progress in the President's condition. He just lay helpless. True, he had been taking nourishment, but the work the doctors had been doing on him had just about sapped his remaining vitality. All his natural functions had to be artificially assisted and he appeared just as helpless as one could possibly be and live."

For seventeen months the incapacitated President lay in his bed, barely able to write his own name. But the full extent of the President's condition was kept a secret from the outside. All communication with the President went through his wife. She and Dr. Grayson agreed that they would shield Wilson from intrusion and would hide his condition from outsiders. For virtually the remainder of Wilson's second term, Mrs. Wilson would enter her husband's room with messages and emerge with what purported to be his verbal instructions or the scrawl of a signature on a piece of paper. Edith Wilson later called this period her "stewardship." Others later called her the first woman President.

While Wilson was bedridden, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles with its provision for the League. Although Wilson's health improved, he never fully recovered. Over that period Wilson was essentially an invalid in the White House. His wife insulated him from negative news and downplayed for him the gravity of his condition. In mid-November 1919, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and other like-minded Republicans formed a coalition with pro-Treaty Democrats on a compromise. The group were close to a two-thirds majority for a Treaty with reservations. But Wilson rejected this compromise. At least two of Wilson's biographers suggest that Wilson's stroke in September had prevented him from negotiating effectively with Lodge.

By February 1920, the President's true condition became more well-known. Many Senators expressed qualms about Wilson's fitness for the presidency, but no one, including his wife or his physician, was willing to accept responsibility for the certification required by the Constitution, of Wilson's "inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office".

Vice-President Thomas Marshall Marshall tried to meet with Wilson to personally determine his condition, he was prevented from doing so by Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson. He relied on the updates he received from Grayson. A group of Congressional leaders considered taking steps to press the issue, but many of the senators opposed the League of Nations treaty and were concerned that, as president, Marshall would make several key concessions that would allow the treaty to win ratification. Wilson, in his present condition, was either unwilling or unable to make those concessions. In order to prevent the treaty's ratification, those Senators did not press the issue.

On December 4, Secretary of State Robert Lansing announced in a Senate committee hearing that no one in the cabinet had spoken with or seen Wilson in over sixty days. The senators requested that a committee be sent to check on Wilson's condition, hoping to gain evidence to support their cause. Dubbed the "smelling committee" by several newspapers, the group discovered Wilson was in very poor health, but seemed to have recovered enough of his faculties to make decisions.

At a Sunday church service in mid-December, a courier brought a bogus message informing him that Wilson had died. Marshall was shocked, and rose to announce the news to the congregation. The ministers held a prayer, the congregation began singing hymns, and many people wept. Marshall and his wife exited the building, and made a call to the White House to determine his next course of action, only to find that he had been the victim of a hoax, and that Wilson was still living.

Marshall performed a few ceremonial functions for the President, but it was First Lady Edith Wilson who reviewed all of Wilson's communications and decided what he would be presented with and what she would delegate to others.

Wilson began to recover by the end of 1919, but remained secluded for the remainder of his term, steadfast in his refusal or inability to accept changes to the treaty. Marshall was prevented from meeting with him to ascertain his true condition until his final day in office.

After the end of his second term in 1921, Wilson and his wife moved from the White House to a town house in the Embassy Row section of Washington, D.C. On November 10, 1923, Wilson made a short Armistice Day radio speech from the library of his home, his last national address. The following day he spoke briefly from the front steps to more than 20,000 well wishers gathered outside the house. On February 3, 1924, Wilson died at home of a stroke and other heart-related problems at age 67. He was interred in a sarcophagus in Washington National Cathedral, the only president interred in Washington, D.C.

Presidential Affairs: Theodore Roosevelt and the Brownsville Affair

In the aftermath of reconstruction, African-Americans faced a difficult period filled with racial discrimination and racial violence. While slavery had ended with the civil war, any gains in the field of racial equality were modest at best. Even those African-Americans who served their country in the military, such as the "Buffalo Soldiers" who served in the Spanish-American War, returned home to inequality and prejudice. While Theodore Roosevelt appeared to be a great reformer in many fields, advancement of the rights of African-Americans was not one of them.

This became apparent in an incident known as the Brownsville Affair, one that arose out of tensions between African-American soldiers and white citizens in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. When a white bartender was killed and a police officer wounded by gunshot, townspeople accused the members of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a unit of Buffalo Soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Brown. Although commanders said the soldiers had been in the barracks all night, the scales of justice were tipped against them, resulting in a number of wrongful convictions. When those wronged appealed to their President, they found no support.

On July 28, 1906, a group of African-American soldiers known as "Buffalo Soldiers", arrived at Ford Brown, near Brownsville, Texas. Their status as soldiers who had served their country honorably afforded them no relief from the legally sanctioned discriminatory treatment in the community. In early August of that year, a fight broke out between a black soldier and a local Brownsville night watchman. The night watchman was shot to death. It was said that the soldier went to town looking to provoke an incident with the night watchman. Local laws made it an offense for black soldiers to carry weapons into town. The killing occurred at a brothel where other soldiers were also present. When word of the killing spread, a large mob of armed whites immediately began to form. The black soldiers who were in town were chased and shot at by the white mob. The incident escalated and in the end three people were dead: one black soldier and two white males. The city of Brownsville barred members of the 25th Infantry from setting foot in the city again.

On the night of August 13, 1906, a white bartender was shot and killed and a Hispanic police officer was wounded. The residents of Brownsville blamed the black soldiers of the 25th Infantry at Fort Brown. The soldiers of the 25th Infantry were accused of the shootings. Their white commanders at Fort Brown confirmed that all of the soldiers were in their barracks at the time of the shootings. Brownsville's mayor and others claimed that some of the black soldiers had participated in the shooting. Suspicious evidence was presented from the shootings, including spent bullet cartridges that the prosecutors claimed came from Army rifles which belonged to soldiers from the 25th. Contradictory evidence demonstrated the spent shells were planted and not used in the shootings. Investigators rejected this and accepted the statements of the local whites and of the Brownsville mayor.

Soldiers of the 25th Infantry were pressured to name the men who fired the shots, but they maintained that they had no idea who had committed the crime. Captain Bill McDonald of the Texas Rangers investigated 12 enlisted men. The local county court did not return any indictments based on his investigation. Residents maintained their complaints about the black soldiers of the 25th.

At the recommendation of the Army's Inspector General, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 of the black troops dishonorably discharged because of what he called their "conspiracy of silence". Six of the soldiers had been Medal of Honor recipients. This dishonorable discharge prevented these 167 men from ever working in a military or civil service capacity. Some of the soldiers had been in the U.S. Army for over twenty years, while others were extremely close to retirement with pensions, which they lost. Booker T. Washington, a leading African-American educator, asked President Roosevelt to reconsider his decision. Roosevelt refused to do so.

Many Americans of both races were outraged at Roosevelt for his decision. Roosevelt had previously enjoyed good political support among African-Americans. Roosevelt purposely withheld news of the discharge of the soldiers until after the 1906 Congressional elections, so that the pro-Republican black vote would not be affected. Many hoped that the judicious William Howard Taft would intervene, and Taft privately urged Roosevelt to reconsider, but Taft did not take a public stand against the decision for fear of adversely affecting his chance to be the next President.

Leaders of major African-American organizations, such as the Constitution League, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Niagara Movement tried to persuade Roosevelt not to discharge the soldiers, to no avail.

From 1907–1908, the US Senate Military Affairs Committee investigated the Brownsville Affair. In March of 1908 the majority supported Roosevelt's conclusion. Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio had lobbied for the investigation and filed a minority report in support of the soldiers' innocence. Another minority report by four Republicans concluded that the evidence was too inconclusive to support the discharges. In September 1908, African-American activist W. E. B. Du Bois urged African-Americans to register to vote and to remember Roosevelt's handling of this incident.

On February 23, 1909 The Committee on Military Affairs recommended Bill S.5729, which for correction of records and reenlistment of Officers and men of Companies B,C, and D of the 25th Infantry. Unfortunately, Senator Foraker was defeated in his re-election bid for his senate seat. He continued to work on Brownsville in his remaining time in office, guiding a resolution through Congress to establish a board of inquiry with the power to reinstate the soldiers. Foraker had hoped for a requirement that unless specific evidence was shown against a man, he would be allowed to re-enlist. The bill, which passed both houses, only provided for the board of inquiry.

On March 6, 1909, shortly after he left the Senate, Joseph Foraker was honored at a mass meeting at Washington's Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. He told the crowd:

"I have said that I do not believe that a man in that battalion had anything to do with the shooting up of Brownsville, but whether any one of them had, it was our duty to ourselves as a great, strong, and powerful nation to give every man a hearing, to deal fairly and squarely with every man; to see to it that justice was done to him; that he should be heard."

On April 7, 1909 under the provisions of the Act of March 30, 1909 a Military Court of Inquiry was selected by Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson to report on the charges and recommend for reenlistment those who had been discharged. Of the 167 discharged men 76 were located as witness, but 6 did not wish to appear. The 1910 Court of Military Inquiry undertook an examination of the soldiers' bids for re-enlistment, in view of the Senate committee's reports. The members interviewed only about one-half of the soldiers discharged. It accepted 14 for re-enlistment, and 11 of these re-entered the Army.

In 1970, John D. Weaver published The Brownsville Raid, which investigated the affair. Weaver argued that the accused members of the 25th Infantry were innocent, and that they were discharged without benefit of due process of law as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. After reading his book, Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins of Los Angeles introduced a bill to have the Defense Department re-investigate the matter. In 1972, the Army found the accused members of the 25th Infantry innocent. On this recommendation, President Richard Nixon pardoned the men and awarded them honorable discharges without backpay. These were generally issued posthumously, as there were only two surviving soldiers: one had re-enlisted in 1910. In 1973, Congress passed a tax-free pension for the last survivor, Dorsie Willis, who received $25,000. He was honored in ceremonies in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.

A more recent book on this subject is Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics by Harry Lembeck, published on January 6, 2015.

Presidential Affairs: Chester Alan Arthur and the Birthers

Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution requires that, in order to be eligible to hold the office, a president must "be a natural-born citizen of the United States". Long before President Barack Obama was accused by a group of conspiracy theorists, dubbed as "birthers" by the media, of not being born in the United States, a similar allegation was made against another President. That President was accused not of being Kenyan, but of being (gasp!) a Canadian. Chester Alan Arthur, who became President in 1881 upon the death of James Garfield, had his own "birthers" to deal with.

Most historians believe that Chester Alan Arthur was born October 5, 1829, in Fairfield, Vermont. (His gravestone gives his year of birth as 1830, but Thomas Reeves, his most prominent biographer, believes that 1829 is the correct year based on his research and the fact that the Arthur family bible records his birth as being in 1829.) Arthur was a first generation American. His father, William Arthur, was born in County Antrim, Ireland, and emigrated to Dunham, in what was then called Lower Canada (now called Quebec) in 1818 or 1819 after graduating from Belfast College. Arthur's mother, Malvina Stone, was born in Vermont, the daughter of George Washington Stone and Judith Stevens. Malvina's family was of primarily English descent, and her grandfather, Uriah Stone, fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Malvina met William while he was teaching at a school in Dunham, just across the border from Vermont, and the two soon married. After their first child, Regina, was born in Dunham, the Arthurs moved to Burlington, Vermont, and later to Waterville, also in Vermont. In Waterville, William joined the Free Will Baptist Church, spending the rest of his life as a minister. He also became a fervent abolitionist, which at times made him unpopular with parts of his congregations. In 1828, the family moved again, to Fairfield, where Chester Alan Arthur was born the following year.

After Chester's birth, the family remained in Fairfield until 1832, when the elder Arthur's profession took them on the road again to several towns in Vermont and upstate New York, finally settling in the Schenectady area. It was because of William Arthur's frequent moves that Arthur's political opponents based their accusation that Chester Arthur was not a native-born citizen of the United States. After Arthur was nominated for Vice President in 1880, his political opponents accused Arthur of being constitutionally ineligible to hold that office.

A New York attorney named Arthur P. Hinman was hired by the Democratic Party to explore rumors of Arthur's foreign birth. Hinman initially alleged that Arthur was born in Ireland and did not come to the United States until he was fourteen years old, which would make him ineligible for the Vice Presidency under the United States Constitution's natural-born citizen clause. When that story failed to be believed, Hinman next tried to promote the theory that Arthur was born in Canada, but this claim also failed to gain any support. Following is a story which appeared in the New York Times on December 22, 1880:


ST. ALBANS, Vt., Dec. 21.—A stranger arrived here a few days ago, and registered at the American House as A. P. Hinman, of New-York. Since then he has been very busy in the adjoining town of Fairfield, ostensibly collecting materials for a biography of Vice-President-elect Arthur. He has privately stated to leading Democratic citizens, however, that he is employed by the Democratic National Committee to obtain evidence to show that Gen. Arthur is an unnaturalized foreigner. He claims to have discovered that Gen. Arthur was born in Canada, instead of Fairfield; that his name is Chester Allen instead of Chester Abell [sic]; that he was 50 years old in July instead of October, as has been stated, and generally that he is an alien and ineligible to the office of Vice-President.

Hinman wrote a book containing all of his theories. Published in 1884, it was called "How a British Subject Became President of the United States". (It's out of print now, but a number of years ago, I somehow managed to download a copy from a website that I can't seem to find any more.) In the book, Hinman appendixes copies of his correspondence searching for Arthur's birth certificate, a record of which he was unable to locate, either in New Hampshire or in Quebec. In a letter to Hinman from J. H. Corey of Bedford, Quebec, dated February 5, 1881, the alleged author of the letter writes:


I'm not precisely sure how Arthur was able to disprove the claims of the birthers of his day. Holding a press conference and showing his long form birth certificate wasn't an option for him because no such records appear to exist. To this day rumors persist that Arthur was born in Canada. An example of a recent rehashing of these rumors can be found in this article from 2012 on the CBS website. But the most knowledgeable Arthur scholar, biographer Thomas Reeves, is convinced that Arthur was born a Vermonter, and that Hinman's "research" was really just a part of the dirty politics that were commonplace at the time. Still, when Arthur was near death, he ordered most of his public an private papers burned. Was this something that he wanted to conceal? It will continue to be one of history's mysteries.

Presidential Affairs: James Garfield and Credit Mobilier

The Crédit Mobilier scandal was a prominent post-bellum event that involved the Union Pacific Rail Road and the Crédit Mobilier of America construction company. It concerned the building of the eastern portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In the course of building the railroad, it later came to light that over $9 million in cash and discounted stock were given as bribes to 15 powerful Washington politicians, including the Vice-President, the Secretary of the Treasury, four senators, and the Speaker and other members of the House. The incident occurred in 1867, but came to light five years later in 1872.

The scandal had its roots in an 1864 decision by Congress to charter the Union Pacific Rail Road. At the same time a company known as Crédit Mobilier was established. This company had no connection to the French bank of the same name, which at the time was one of the major financial institutions in the world. In 1867, Massachusetts Republican Congressman Oakes Ames, a wealthy entrepreneur, distributed cash bribes and discounted shares of Crédit Mobilier stock to other congressmen in exchange for votes favorable to the Union Pacific Railroad. Ames' activities came to light in a story in the New York newspaper, The Sun, published during the 1872 presidential campaign, when Ulysses S. Grant was running for re-election.

The elected officials named in the story as having received cash or discounted shares of stock were former Representative Schuyler Colfax, (then serving as Grant's Vice President), Henry Wilson (the senator selected to replace Colfax as the Republican vice presidential nominee during the 1872 Presidential election), James G. Blaine (future Republican presidential candidate and Speaker of the House at the time) and Ohio Representative James Garfield (future President of the United States).

As a result of various congressional votes between 1864 and 1868, the federal government had authorized and chartered the Union Pacific Railroad and provided it with capital of $100 million, to complete a transcontinental rail line from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast. The federal government offered to assist the railroad with loans of between $16,000 and $48,000 per mile, (depending on the location), for a total of over $60 million, and a land grant of 20 million acres, valued at between $50 to $100 million.

The railroad construction involved building on 1,750 miles through desert and mountains. This meand that freight costs for supplies would be very expensive and there was the likely risk of armed conflict with hostile Native American nations. At the time there was no demand for railroad freight or passenger traffic for the region, since no towns or cities of any significance yet existed on the western prairies. Without either commercial activity of any kind nor any commerce from Nebraska to the California border, it was unlikely that the railroad would be profitable for some time. The railroad would earn its operating expenses through freight and passenger rail revenues while providing profits for investors, interest payments to the US government for its borrowed U.S. government capital. Private investors saw this as an unattractive business opportunity.

George Francis Train and Thomas C. Durant formed the Crédit Mobilier in 1864. Durant was the vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad. The creation of Crédit Mobilier of America was a deliberate attempt to falsely represent, both to the US government of and to the general public, the existence of a corporate enterprise, independent of the Union Pacific Rail Road and its principal officers. In fact it had been created by the officers of the Union Pacific to protect the shareholders and management from accusations of excess profiting on the construction phase of the project. Those behind the scheme knew that profits could not be generated from the operation of the railroad, so they created a sham company to charge the U.S. government exorbitant fees and expenses during construction of the rail line.

Here is how the scheme worked. Union Pacific contracted with Crédit Mobilier to build the Union Pacific railway at rates significantly above cost. These construction contracts brought high profits to Crédit Mobilier, which was owned by Durant and the Union Pacific's other directors and principal shareholders. The directors of the Union Pacific paid Crédit Mobilier for construction contracts and Crédit Mobilier then used the money to purchase Union Pacific stock at par.

The U.S. Congress paid $94,650,287 to Crédit Mobilier via Union Pacific while Crédit Mobilier incurred operating costs of only $50,720,959. Thus the deal generated $43,929,328 in profits for Crédit Mobilier. The Crédit Mobilier directors reported this as a cash profit of only $23,366,319.81. In fact these same directors were also the recipients of the undisclosed $20,563,010, Union Pacific share of the $44 million in total profits. If Union Pacific had openly undertaken the management and construction of the railroad, then this scheme would have been transparent to public scrutiny. Opponents of the project would have been proven correct in their assertion that the project was really just a plan by some capitalists to build a "railroad to nowhere" and to make tremendous profits for doing so, at the expense of the United States government.

To facilitate the fraud, Union Pacific presented invoices to the U.S. government, as evidence of actual construction costs incurred and billed to them by Crédit Mobilier of America for payment. The railroad prepared and presented meticulously detailed invoices to the U.S. government, requesting payment for these bills, allegedly accrued by the Union Pacific from Crédit Mobilier, for the construction of the rail line. The bills included only a small additional fee over the cost stated on the Crédit Mobilier invoices for the Union Pacific's operating and overhead expenses.

It was not initially revealed that the two companies had common ownership. Nor was it revealed that in every major construction contract drawn up between the Union Pacific and Crédit Mobilier, the contract's terms, conditions, and price had been offered (by Crédit Mobilier) and accepted (by the Union Pacific) through the actions of corporate officers and directors who were one and the same persons. The company was able to maintain secrecy by selling share at a price well below the market value, in Crédit Molbilier to those members of Congress who also agreed to support additional funding for the railroad. At the time, it was a very sophisticated corporate scam, but it was also mostly legal.

In 1867, Crédit Mobilier replaced Thomas Durant as its head with the Congressman Oakes Ames. In that year Ames offered to members of Congress shares of stock in Crédit Mobilier at its discounted value rather than the market value, which was much higher. Crédit Mobilier was the exclusive construction and management agent for the building of the Pacific Railroad. The congressmen and others allowed to purchase shares at a discount could reap enormous capital gains simply by offering their shares on the market, knowing that they would be purchased at a higher price by investors desiring to own stock in such a "profitable" company. These same members of Congress increased the value of the shares by voting to appropriate government funds to cover Crédit Mobilier's inflated charges.

But the scheme came to light during the 1872 presidential campaign, when the New York City newspaper, The Sun, broke the story. The paper was opposed to the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant and regularly published articles critical of the Grant administration. Henry Simpson McComb, an associate of Ames, leaked compromising letters to the newspaper after a falling out with Ames. The Sun reported that Crédit Mobilier had received $72 million in contracts for building a railroad worth only $53 million. The revelations caused the stock prices to plummet and the Union Pacific and other investors took a huge financial loss.

In 1872, the House of Representatives submitted the names of nine politicians to the Senate for investigation: Senators William B. Allison (Republican from Iowa), James A. Bayard, Jr. (Democrat from Delaware), George S. Boutwell (Republican from Massachusetts), Roscoe Conkling (Republican from New York), James Harlan (Republican from Iowa), John Logan (Republican from Illinois), James W. Patterson (Republican from New Hampshire), and Henry Wilson (Republican from Massachusetts). Also named for investigation was Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana. Thirteen members of the House of Representatives were also investigated. A Department of Justice investigation also took place, with Aaron F. Perry serving as chief counsel. During the investigation, the government found that the company had given shares to more than 30 representatives of both parties, including Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield.

Garfield denied the charges. He was elected President in 1880, and during that election the scandal did not appear to adversely affect his candidacy. In 1872 The Republicans replaced Colfax on the ticket, ending his bid to be renominated for Vice President. The new candidate, Henry Wilson, was also implicated in the scandal. Wilson was able to show that he had paid for stock in his wife's name, and with her money, and that when the Wilsons later had concerns about the transaction, Ames returned the purchase price, and Wilson returned the dividends he had been paid.

It was Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, seeking to clear his name, who demanded a House investigation. Evidence before the special committee exonerated Blaine. As for Garfield, he testified that in September 1872, Ames had offered him stock, but he had repeatedly refused it. According to Ames' testimony, he said that he had offered Garfield ten shares of stock at par value, but that Garfield had never taken the shares, or paid for them. Garfield appeared before the committee on January 14, 1873 and confirmed much of this. Ames testified several weeks later that Garfield agreed to take the stock on credit, and that it was paid for by the company's huge dividends. The testimony of the two men differed over $300 that Garfield received and later paid back. Garfield said this was a loan and Ames said it was a dividend.

Garfield's biographer Allan Peskin sums up Garfield's involvement in this manner: "Did Garfield lie? Not exactly. Did he tell the truth? Not completely. Was he corrupted? Not really. Even Garfield's enemies never claimed that his involvement influenced his behavior." Ira Rutkow (who wrote the Garfield biography for the American Presidents Series) put it this way: "Garfield's real offense was that he knowingly denied to the House investigating committee that he had agreed to accept the stock and that he had also received a dividend of $329."

Presidential Affairs: Ulysses Grant and the Trial of Orville Babcock

During the presidency of Ulysses Grant, a number of scandals and fraudulent or dishonest activity was discovered within Grant's administration. Many of Grant's biographers have concluded that Grant's failing was in the appointment of dishonest subordinates and of remaining loyal to these men, rather than any dishonest activity on the part of Grant himself. If one follows the money from these scandals, none of it seems to end up in Grant's pockets. But in some cases, his behavior appears less than stellar when it comes an examination of his part in impeding the prosecution of some of the guilty parties.


One of the worst and most famous scandals to occur during the Grant administration was dubbed the Whiskey Ring of 1875. It came to light from the efforts of Grant's Treasury Secretary Benjamin H. Bristow as well as journalist Myron Colony. The scandal concerned the collection of taxes from whiskey distillers in the midwest, or rather the failure to collect these taxes. Whiskey distillers would often bribe Treasury Department agents who assisted them in evading taxes in return for kickbacks. The agents would under-report or fail to collect the required excise tax of 70 cents per gallon, and then split the savings with the distillers. This was an elaborate system that required the involvement of a number of persons including distillers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks, who were either paid off or intimidated into co-operating with the dishonest scheme. It was costing the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.

On January 26, 1875, Bristow gave about twenty days' notice to Internal Revenue officers in various sites that they would be moved to different locations, effective February 15, 1875. This was intended to catch the fraudulent officers off guard and allow investigators to uncover what was really going on in their locations. Grant had originally supported the plan, but he later rescinded the order. Grant had doubts about the plan, but his reversal give rise to the suspicion that he was interfering with the investigation. Moving the collectors would have disrupted the ring, but Bristow agreed that it would not provide the necessary evidence on the ring's inner workings to prosecute those responsible.

Bristow continued the investigation. He sent journalist Myron Colony and other spies to gather whiskey shipping and manufacturing information in order to gather enough evidence to prosecute some of the bad actors. On May 13, 1875, with Grant's approval, Bristow seized a number of suspected dishonest distilleries. Hundreds were arrested, and Bristow, with the cooperation of Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont, launched proceedings to bring many members of the ring to trial.

Bristow's investigation disclosed that the Whiskey Ring operated in Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Missouri Revenue Agent John A. Joyce and two of Grant's appointees, Supervisor of Internal Revenue General John McDonald and Orville E. Babcock, the private secretary to the President, were among those indicted in the Whiskey Ring trials. Grant's other private secretary Horace Porter was also involved in the Whiskey Ring. Grant and Babcock were especially close, as he had served as aide-de-camp for Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and participated in the Overland Campaign. After Grant became President in 1869, Babcock was appointed his Private Secretary (similar to a modern day chief of staff) and served until 1876. He had a reputation as being devious and was generally not trusted by many in Congress.

Grant appointed a special prosecutor to prosecute those involved. He chose former Nevada senator John B. Henderson for the post. Henderson, while in the Senate, had been one of the Grant administration's worst critics, and Grant believed that the appointment would demonstrate his integrity in the prosecution of those involved in the Whiskey Ring.

Henderson convened a grand jury, which found that Babcock was one of the ringleaders. When Grant received a letter to this effect, he wrote on it, "Let no guilty man escape." Evidence showed that Babcock sent coded letters to McDonald on how to run the ring in St. Louis. McDonald claimed he gave Babcock $25,000 from the divided profits and personally sent him a $1,000 bill in a cigar box.

After Babcock's indictment, Grant requested that Babcock go through a military trial rather than a public trial. When the grand jury denied his request, Grant became more involved in the prosecution. He issued an order not to give any more immunity to persons involved in the Whiskey Ring. This order made the case against Babcock more difficult to prove in court. Bristow and Henderson needed distillers to testify with immunity in order to pursue the ringleaders. Henderson accused Grant of interfering with the prosecution. Angered by this criticism, Grant fired Henderson as special prosecutor. He replaced Henderson with James Broadhead, a capable lawyer, but someone who was hamstrung in the prosecution because he had little time to get up to speed with the case.

At Babcock's trial, Grant provided a deposition which stated that he had no knowledge that Babcock was involved in the ring. The jury appeared to be swayed by Grant's vouching for his former aide and they quickly acquitted Babcock of any charges. McDonald and Joyce were convicted in the graft trials and sent to prison. On January 26, 1877, President Grant pardoned McDonald.

At the time there were rumors that Grant himself was involved with the ring and was diverting its profits to his 1872 re-election campaign. Grant said that he refused to believe Babcock was guilty, even when Bristow personally presented him with damaging evidence. On the advice of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, the President did not testify in the court case. Instead he gave a deposition in front of a congressional legal representative at the White House. His testimony was given on Saturday, February 12, 1876 before Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, a Grant appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the deposition, Grant was asked these questions and gave these answers:

Eaton: Have you ever seen anything in the conduct of General Babcock, or has he ever said anything to you, which indicated to your mind that he was in any way interested in or concerned with the Whiskey Ring at St. Louis or elsewhere?
Grant: Never.
Eaton: Did General Babcock on or about April 23, 1875, show you a dispatch in these words: St. Louis, April 23, 1875. Gen. O.E. Babcock, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C. Tell Mack to see Parker of Colorado; & telegram to Commissioner. Crush out St. Louis enemies.
Grant: I did not remember about these dispatches at all until since the conspiracy trials have commenced. I have heard General Babcock's explanation of most or all of them since that. Many of the dispatches may have been shown to me at the time, and explained, but I do not remember it.
Eaton: Perhaps you are aware, General, that the Whiskey Ring have persistently tried to fix the origins of that ring in the necessity for funds to carry on political campaigns. Did you ever have intimation from General Babcock, or anyone else in any manner, directly or indirectly, that any funds for political purposes were being raised by any improper methods?
Grant: I never did. I have seen since these trials intimations of that sort in the newspapers, but never before.
Eaton: Then let me ask you if the prosecuting officers have not been entirely correct in repelling all insinuations that you ever had tolerated any such means for raising funds.
Grant: I was not aware that they had ever attempted to repel any insinuations.

The strategy worked and the Whiskey Ring prosecution never went after Grant. During Babcock's trial in St. Louis the deposition was read to the jury and Babcock was acquitted at trial. After the trial, Grant distanced himself from Babcock. After the trial, Babcock briefly returned to his position as Grant's private secretary, working outside the Oval Office. On the advice of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Babcock was dismissed as Grant's private secretary. He was given another position by Grant, that of superintending engineer of public buildings and grounds.

One of Grant's biographers, Pulitzer Prize winning author William S. McFeely, concludes that Grant knew Babcock was guilty and perjured himself in the deposition. According to McFeely the "evidence was irrefutable" against Babcock, and Grant knew this. John McDonald also claimed that Grant knew that the Whiskey Ring existed and perjured himself to save Babcock. But historian Jean Edward Smith believes that the evidence against Babcock was circumstantial and that the St. Louis jury acquitted Babcock because the case against him was not a strong one.

Wherever the truth lies, Grant's popularity decreased significantly following his testimony and after Babcock was acquitted at trial. The unpopularity of Grant's testimony on behalf of his friend Babcock ruined his chances for a third term nomination.

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Bristow's investigation resulted in 350 federal indictments. There were 110 convictions, and three million dollars in tax revenues were recovered from the ring.

Presidential Affairs: Ulysses Grant and the Virginius Affair

The Virginius Affair, also known as the Virginius Incident, was a diplomatic dispute that occurred during the second term of President Ulysses Grant, from October 1873 to February 1875. It involved a very fast ship, known as the Virginius, that was hired by Cuban insurrectionists to land men and munitions in Cuba to attack Spain. It was captured by Spain. The Spanish government wanted to try and execute the men on board as pirates. Most of them were American and British citizens, and 53 of the men on board the ship were in fact executed. Britain and the US were outraged over the execution of their nationals by a foreign government, and there was even a call for war on Spain. Instead, the issue was resolved through diplomacy.


After the Civil War ended, Cuba was one of only a few Western Hemisphere countries where slavery remained legal and was widely practiced. Cuba was under the control of Spain at the time. On October 10, 1868 a revolution broke out, known as the Ten Years War, in which Cuban landowners led by Carlos Manual Céspedes, rebelled against Spain. The Spanish used their military to suppress the rebellion.

In 1870, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish persuaded President Grant not to get involved in the dispute and the United States maintained peace with Spain. As the Cuban war continued, support for the Cuban rebels grew and war bonds were sold in the U.S. to support the Cuban resistance. A U.S. supporter of the Cuban rebels named John F. Patterson bought a former Confederate steamer Virgin at the Washington Navy Yard, and renamed the ship Virginius.

The Virginius was a small, high-speed side-wheel steamer that had been built by the Confederacy to use as a blockade runner between Havana and Mobile, Alabama during the Civil War. The ship was captured by the Union Navy on April 12, 1865. In August 1870, Patterson purchased the ship acting secretly as an agent for Cuban insurgent Manuel Quesada and two U.S. citizens who supported the Cuban insurgents: Marshall O. Roberts and J.K. Roberts. Patterson swore a false oath that he was the sole owner of the Virginius. The Virginius was intended by the new owners to be used to transport men, munitions, and supplies to aid the Cuban rebellion. For three years the ship did so. The Spanish said it was an outlaw ship and aggressively sought to capture

Captain Joseph Fry, became the new captain of the Virginius in October 1873. He had served in the U.S. Navy for 15 years, before joining the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginius, moored in Kingston, Jamaica at the time. Fry recruited a new crew of 52 men, both American and British. Apparently many of the new crew did not not understand that the Virginius was supporting the Cuban rebellion. Three were very young recruits, some no older than 13 years of age.

The Virginius travelled in October of 1873 to Haiti and the ship was loaded with munitions. On October 30, the Virginius sailed to Comito to pick up more weapons, then on the same day started toward Cuba. The Spanish had been warned when the Virginius left Jamaica and sent out the warship Tornado to capture the vessel. Later that day, on October 30, 1873 the Tornado spotted the Virginius on open water six miles from Cuba and gave chase. The Virginius was heavily weighted and the stress from the boilers caused the ship to take on water, significantly slowing it down. As the chase continued the Tornado, a fast warship, fired on the Virginius several times, damaging the top deck. Captain Fry, surrendered the Virginius knowing that his ships over-worked boilers and leaking hull could not outrun the Tornado on the open sea. The Spanish quickly boarded and secured the ship. The entire crew was taken as prisoners and the ship sailed to Santiago, Cuba.

The Spanish immediately ordered the entire crew to be put on trial as pirates. The entire Virginius crew, both American and British citizens, were found guilty by a court martial and were sentenced to death. The American vice-consul launched a protest and attempted to give American citizens legal aid, but Spain ignored the protests. On November 4, 1873 the four mercenaries that accompanied Capt. Fry were executed by firing squad without trial. One of the executed men had claimed British citizenship. After the executions, the British vice-consul at Santiago wired Jamaica and instructed the British navy to stop further executions. The HMS Niobe under Sir Lambton Lorraine went to Santiago to try to stop further executions, but on November 7, a further 37 crew members, including Captain Fry, were executed by firing squad. The Spanish soldiers decapitated them and committed further indignities on their bodies. On November 8, twelve more crew members were executed. When the HMS Niobe finally reached Santiago the executions stopped when Lorraine threatened local commander Juan N. Burriel that he would bombard Santiago if there were any more executions. Up to that point here had been a total of 53 executions.

As news of executions reached the United States, some newspapers called for war with Spain. The New York Times and the New York Tribune were among those calling for war. The New York Herald demanded Secretary Hamilton Fish's resignation and for the U.S. to assist the Cuban rebels. The National Republican, having believed the threat of war with Spain was imminent, encouraged the sale of Cuban war bonds. Protest rallies took place across the nation in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Georgia encouraging intervention in Cuba and revenge on Spain.

On Wednesday November 5, 1873, when the U.S. State Department learned that the Virginius had been captured, there was no knowledge that four mercenaries had already been killed. But at the November 7 Cabinet meeting, Grant learned of the deaths of Ryan and three other mercenaries. The Cabinet minutes described the executions as "an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of the civilization of the nineteenth century." The next day, November 8, Secretary of State Fish met with Spanish minister, Don José Polo de Barnabé, and discussed the legality of the Virginius capture. On November 11, President Grant's Cabinet decided that war with Spain was not desirable, though Cuban intervention was possible. On November 12, five days after the event, Fish received the news that 37 crew members of the Virginius had been executed. Fish ordered his U.S. Consul to Spain Daniel Sickles to demand reparations for any persons considered U.S. citizens who were killed. On November 14, Grant's Cabinet agreed that if U.S. demands for reparations were not met, the Spanish legation would be closed. On November 15, Polo visited Fish and stated that the Virginius was a pirate ship and that her crew had been a hostile threat to Cuba. Fish demanded that the Virginius be returned to the United States, that the crew that had escaped execution be released, that there be punishment for the perpetrators, and reparations for the families of the deceased Americans.

Negotiations in Spain between Sickles and Minister of State, José de Carvajal, became heated and settlement seemed unlikely. The Spanish press was critical of the United States and Britain and also called for war between the three countries. As the Sickles-Carvajal negotiations broke down, Spanish President Emilio Castelar decided to settle the Virginius matter through Fish in Washington. On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, Polo proposed to Fish that Spain would give up the Virginius and remaining crew, if the U.S. would investigate the legal status of the ownership of the Virginius. Both Fish and President Grant agreed to Polo's offer and that the Spanish salute to the U.S. flag would be dispensed with if the Virginius was found not have legal U.S. private citizen ownership. On November 28, Polo and Fish met at the State Department and signed a formal agreement that included the return of the Virginius and crew, and an investigation by both governments of the legal ownership of the Virginius and of any crimes committed by the Spanish Volunteers. The threat of war between the two countries had been averted through negotiations.

On December 5, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that the Virginius, with the U.S. flag flying, would be turned over to the U.S. Navy on December 16 at the port of Bahia Honda, Cuba. Sickles, having lost the confidence of President Grant and Fish, resigned on December 20, 1873. On January 6, 1874, President Grant appointed eminent attorney and Spanish scholar Caleb Cushing as Consul to Spain. On December 16, the Virginius, now in complete disrepair and taking on water, was towed out to open sea with the U.S. flag flying to be turned over to the U.S. Navy. On December 17, at exactly 9:00 A.M the Virginius was formerly turned over to the U.S. Navy without incident. The same day, after an investigation, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams ruled that the U.S. ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and she had no right to fly the U.S. flag, but that Spain had no right to capture the Virginius and her crew on the open sea.


On December 26, at 4:17 A.M, the Virginius sank off Cape Hatteras as she was being towed to the United States, by the USS Ossipee. The 91 remaining crew of the Virginius, who had been held as prisoners under harsh conditions, were taken safely to New York.

On January 3, 1874, Spanish President Emilio Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano. Caleb Cushing believed that the United States had been fortunate that Castelar, a university scholar, had been President of Spain, since his replacement, Serrano, was more likely to go to war over the Virginius affair. Cushing met President Serrano and was able to convince Spain was ready to make reparations. President Grant demanded that Spain pay $2,500 for each U.S. citizen shot regardless of race. Initially Spain agreed, but reparations were put on hold, as Spain changed governments from a Republic, that expired on December 28, back to a Monarchy, and crowned Alphonso King of Spain on January 11, 1875. Under an agreement signed on March 5, 1875, the Spanish government paid to the United States an indemnity of $80,000 for the execution of the Americans. Burriel's Santiago executions were considered illegal by Spain, but the case against Burriel became moot when Burriel died on December 24, 1877 before any trial could take place.

Presidential Affairs: Abraham Lincoln and the Trent Affair

"One war at a time." That is what Abraham Lincoln reportedly said when some in his cabinet wanted him to go to war with Great Britain while the Civil War was on. Those crying out for war were incensed that Confederate representatives John Mason and John Slidell were on board the British vessel H.M.S. Trent. When an American ship stopped and boarded the Trent and took the two Confederates into custody. Great Britain demanded an apology for the US action of violating British sovereignty. Some in his cabinet cried for war on a second front. Lincoln believed one war was enough.


The Trent Affair was an international diplomatic incident that occurred in the first year of the Civil War. On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Union Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail ship HMS Trent and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. The two envoys were bound for Great Britain and France to press the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition and financial support for the Confederacy.

The news of the capture of Mason and Slidell did not arrive in London until November 27. The British public and newspapers viewed it as an outrageous insult to British honor, and a flagrant violation of maritime law. The initial reaction in the United States was to rally against Britain, threatening war. But President Lincoln realized that this was not the time to risk war. The British government formally demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners. It also took steps to strengthen its military forces in Canada.

After several weeks of tension and loose talk of war, the crisis was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes's actions, though no formal apology was ever issued. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to Britain but failed in their goal of achieving diplomatic recognition.

Presidential Affairs: James Buchanan and the Floyd Affair

James Buchanan's biographer Jean Baker writes that James Buchanan became president with probably more knowledge about the presidency than anyone before him. As a long time Washington insider, he had seen a number of presidents come and go. According to Baker, Buchanan planned on being a strong president, relying mainly on his own counsel. In selecting his cabinet, he chose men whose views matched his own in order to avoid dissent. His cabinet was composed of four southerners and three northerners who, like him, had southern sympathies. (The pejorative term for such persons was "doughface"). Reading about this made me wonder if Abraham Lincoln had selected his cabinet, composed of a "team of rivals", men with diverse viewpoints, intending not to repeat Buchanan's mistake?

One of the southerners Buchanan had selected to his cabinet was John B. Floyd for the important post of Secretary of War. (Coincidentally, the B stands for Buchanan.) After the election of Abraham Lincoln, Floyd took steps to weaken the US Army and to strengthen the position of the southern slave states so as to be ready in the event of war. Buchanan was aware that Floyd was doing this, but he did nothing to prevent it, even after Floyd appeared to be caught in the act stealing from the government. Many believe that Buchanan either knew about what Floyd was doing and did nothing, acting as an enabler, or ever worse, he supported what Floyd was doing because he had strong loyalty for the southern states and the cause of slavery. General Winfield Scott would go so far as to accuse Buchanan of treason, a charge Buchanan feebly tried to refute in a post-war memoir.


In the picture above, John Buchanan Floyd is the man seated to the left of President Buchanan (to Buchanan's right). Floyd was one of Buchanan's worst appointments to the cabinet and a prime example of misplaced trust. Floyd came from Virginia and had served as Governor of the state from 1849 to 1852. As governor, he asked the legislature to pass a law that placed an import tax on the products of states that refused to surrender fugitive slaves owned by Virginian masters. He was a slaveholder and an ardent supporter of the institution.

In March 1857, Floyd became Secretary of War in Buchanan's cabinet. Jean Baker describes Buchanan's cabinet as one of the most corrupt in history. Certainly Floyd supports this appraisal. As Secretary of War, Floyd demonstrated a severe lack of administrative ability, which soon became apparent even to Buchanan. For example, in 1858, Floyd sold Fort Snelling, an army post in Minnesota, to a consortium of Virginia businessmen who were friends of his. The fort was sold for much less than it was worth.

In December 1860, it was discovered that Floyd had used government funds intended for Indian affairs, to pay private contractors in government bonds and in inflated amounts. The contractors used the government bonds to pay their creditors. Even after discovery of Floyd's illegal activity, Buchanan was reluctant to fire Floyd, and was also worried about alienating southerners. The president requested Floyd's resignation instead.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln, Floyd's conduct after the election aroused suspicion. He was accused in the press of having sent large stores of government arms to Federal arsenals in the South in the anticipation of the Civil War. In his memoirs, Ulysses Grant said of Floyd, "Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them."

Floyd did eventually resign his cabinet post on December 29, 1860. After his resignation, a congressional commission investigated Floyd's actions as Secretary of War in late 1861. It was discovered that, in response to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, he bolstered the Federal arsenals in some Southern states by over 115,000 muskets and rifles in late 1859. He also ordered heavy provisions to be shipped to the Federal forts in Galveston Harbor, Texas, and the new fort on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi. In the last days of his term, he planned to send these heavy guns, but his orders were revoked by the president.

Floyd resigned as secretary of war on December 29, 1860, not because of Buchanan's request, but because Buchanan would not do what Floyd wanted. Floyd had wanted Buchanan to order Major Robert Anderson to abandon Fort Sumter, which Buchanan refused to do. This eventually led to the start of the Civil war.

On January 27, 1861, Floyd was indicted by the District of Columbia grand jury for conspiracy and fraud. Floyd appeared in criminal court in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1861, to answer the charges against him. According to Harper's Weekly, the indictments were thrown out on technical grounds. There was no proof that he profited personally from these irregular transactions.

After the Civil War began, Floyd served as a Major General in the Confederate Army, serving under Robert E. Lee. He was wounded at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10, 1861. He was one of the commanders who fled Fort Donelson in 1862 before the fort was surrendered to Ulysses Grant. (The incident led to Grant's nickname of "Unconditional Surrender Grant"). He was relieved of his command and died a year later on August 26, 1863.

After unsuccessfully attempting to send reinforcements to Fort Sumpter in December of 1860, Buchanan made no further moves either to prepare for war or to avert it. On Buchanan's final day as president, March 4, 1861, he said to the incoming President Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man." Buchanan spent most of his remaining years defending himself from public blame for the Civil War. His former cabinet members refused to defend Buchanan publicly. He attempted to justify his actions in his memoir entitled Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion (reviewed here), which was published in 1866. Buchanan died on June 1, 1868, from respiratory failure at the age of 77 at his home at Wheatland.