Happy Birthday JFK

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy. He was younger than the four men who succeeded him as President of the United States. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917 (102 years ago today) in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second oldest of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife Rose. He was the 35th President of the United States and the first Roman Catholic to hold the office. He served as President from January 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963.


John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Science in International Affairs in 1940. When the United States entered the second world war, he served in the Navy, where he was the commander of Motor Torpedo Boats PT-109 in the South Pacific. PT-109 was split in half and sunk by a Japanese destroyer and Kennedy and the survivors from his ship survived by swimming to nearby islands.

Returning home from the war, Kennedy represented Massachusetts's 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 as a Democrat. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1953 until 1960, when he successfully won his party's nomination for President. In 1956 he placed second in the vote for his party's candidate for Vice-President, but four years later, in a close election, Kennedy defeated incumbent Vice-President and future President Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election.

At age 43, Kennedy was the youngest person to have ever been elected to the office, and the second-youngest person to become president. (Theodore Roosevelt became president at a younger age upon the death of William McKinley, but was not elected to the office until he was older than Kennedy). Kennedy was also the first person born in the 20th century to serve as president. Thus far he is the only Roman Catholic president and the only president ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize.

Events during his presidency included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, the building of the Berlin Wall, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Kennedy opposed segregation and supported increased civil rights of African Americans, but he originally believed in a more gradual approach to legislation, acknowledging the political realities he faced in Congress, especially with the Southern Conservatives. But the civil rights demonstrations of Martin Luther King, and the atrocious treatment of African-Americans in the south compelled Kennedy to propose legislative action. In a radio and TV address to the nation in June 1963, Kennedy became the first president to call on all Americans to denounce racism. His civil rights proposals led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. His assassination continues to be the subject of controversy and debate. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested that afternoon and charged with the crime that night. Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald two days later, before a trial could take place. The FBI and the Warren Commission officially concluded that Oswald acted alone as the assassin. The United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) agreed with the conclusion that Oswald fired the shots which killed the president, but also concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.


Kennedy's private life has been the subject of much discussion, especially as new facts have come to light after his death. He suffered from a number of health problems, including Addison's Disease. Reports of his numerous extra-marital affairs have also come to light, although some of his biographers assert that, towards the end of his life, Kennedy became more committed to his marriage.

He is buried at Arlington Cemetery, where his final resting place is marked by what is known as "the Eternal Flame".

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The Obscure Presidents: John Tyler

It's unfortunate that John Tyler falls into the category of obscure presidents, because his story is one of the most interesting. He has been the subject of a number of scholarly biographies including one released earlier this year entitled President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy. Tyler set a number of historical precedents as the first unelected President. He frequently changed political alliances until, as the title of Leahy's book suggests, neither major party would have him. He joined the Confederacy after his presidency, and he took the biblical direction to "go forth and multiply" very seriously. He still has two living grandsons 175 years after his presidency, and his presidential museum is even said to be haunted by "the Grey Lady".

Historical assessments of the presidency of John Tyler have been divided, tending more toward the negative side. One the one hand, as the first Vice-President to ascend to the Presidency following the death of a sitting President, Tyler has been praised for his firm resolve in insisting that he was not merely an "acting president" and in establishing precedent for what is supposed to occur in such an event. On the other hand, like many other Presidents who tried to support the cause of slavery, Tyler is generally held in low esteem by historians. One of his biographers, Edward P. Crapol, begins his 2006 biography John Tyler, the Accidental President (2006) with the observation: "Other biographers and historians have argued that John Tyler was a hapless and inept chief executive whose presidency was seriously flawed."

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Tyler was the tenth President of the United States from 1841 to 1845 after briefly being the tenth vice president. He was elected as Vice-President on the Whig ticket in the 1840 election with President William Henry Harrison. Tyler became President after Harrison's death in April 1841, only a month after the start of the new administration. Tyler was a very strong supporter of states' rights. As president he supported nationalist policies only when they did not infringe on the powers of the states. His unexpected rise to the presidency clashed with the presidential ambitions of Henry Clay and other Whigs and it left him estranged from both major political parties.

Tyler was born into a prominent Virginia family. He represented his state in the US House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821. In the 1820s the nation's only political party, the Democratic-Republicans, split into factions. Tyler was initially a Democrat, but he opposed Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis, seeing Jackson's actions as infringing upon states' rights. He also criticized Jackson's expansion of executive power during the Bank War. This caused Tyler to leave the Democrats and join the Whig Party. Tyler served as Governor of Virginia from 1825 to 1827 and as and a U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1827 to 1837. He was put on the 1840 presidential ticket to attract states' rights Southerners to a Whig coalition in an effort to defeat Martin Van Buren's bid for re-election.

With the death of President Harrison, Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency without election. He served as President longer than any other president not elected to the office. He acted decisively in establishing his authority as president in a time of constitutional uncertainty. Tyler immediately took the oath of office, moved into the White House, and assumed full presidential powers, creating a precedent that governed future successions. This was eventually codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

Tyler did sign into law some of the Whig-controlled Congress's bills, but he offended the party leadership when he vetoed the party's bills to create a national bank and raise the tariff rates. Tyler believed that the president should set policy rather than Congress. He tried to to bypass the Whig leadership in Congress, most notably Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. Most of Tyler's Cabinet resigned early on in his term. Whigs mocked him by calling him "His Accidency". They expelled him from the party. Tyler became the first president to see his veto of legislation overridden by Congress.

Although he met considerable congressional resistance when it came to domestic policy, Tyler had several foreign-policy successes, including the Webster–Ashburton Treaty with Britain and the Treaty of Wanghia with Qing China. But it was in his dealing with the then-independent Republic of Texas that was the centerpiece of his presidency. Texas had separated from Mexico in 1836. Tyler saw its annexation as providing an economic advantage to the United States, and he worked diligently to bring about this goal. That he was able to do so without the backing of his own political party is quite impressive.

Tyler hoped to win election to a full term as president, but he failed to gain the support of either Whigs or Democrats. On learning that the Democratic candidate James K. Polk also favored annexation of Texas, Tyler withdrew his candidacy to support Polk. Polk won the election, and Tyler signed a bill to annex Texas three days before leaving office. The process was completed under Polk.

At first Tyler's retirement saw the former president disrespected by his contemporaries. But when the Civil War approached in 1861, Tyler played the role of elder statesman as he tried to broker a peace. When this was unsuccessful, he won election to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death. He is the only former President to be buried with a Confederate flag draping his coffin.

Despite his political resolve in asserting his authority and creating a lasting precedent, Tyler is considered an obscure president and has little presence in American cultural memory. In The Republican Vision of John Tyler, author Dan Monroe wrote that the Tyler presidency "is generally ranked as one of the least successful". A survey of historians conducted by C-SPAN in 2017 ranked Tyler as 39th of 43 men to hold the office. But Tyler's assumption of complete presidential powers set an important precedent. His successful insistence that he was president, and not a caretaker or acting president, was a model for the succession of seven other presidents and the correctness of Tyler's action in assuming both the title of the presidency and its full powers was legally affirmed in 1967, when it was codified in the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Professor Crapol argues that Tyler "was a stronger and more effective president than generally remembered". Tyler was a president without a party." Crapol argues that Tyler's allegiance to the Confederacy overshadows much of the good he did as president. He writes, "John Tyler's historical reputation has yet to fully recover from that tragic decision to betray his loyalty and commitment to what he had once defined as 'the first great American interest'—the preservation of the Union." His lack of success as president was due to external factors that Harrison would have had to confront. In the aftermath of Jackson's aggressive use of the powers of the Executive Branch, the Whigs wanted a president who would be dominated by Congress. Henry Clay treated Tyler as a subordinate. Tyler refused to go along with this, leading to the conflict between these two branches of government. Crapol and others argue that Tyler does not get enough credit for sticking to his principles on this.


But today the general public has little awareness of John Tyler at all. As Robert Seager II, the author of the 1963 book And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler out it, "His countrymen generally remember him, if they have heard of him at all, as the rhyming end of a catchy campaign slogan." In a 2014 Time Magazine article on the "Top 10 Forgettable Presidents", the writer notes: "After John Tyler earned the vice presidency on the strength of a campaign slogan that tacked him on as a postscript — 'Tippecanoe and Tyler too' — his fate as a historical footnote seemed likely; and when he ascended to the presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, being dubbed 'His Accidency' made it a lock."

The Obscure Presidents: Zachary Taylor

In the past I have lamented the fact that Zachary Taylor doesn't really have much of a Presidential Library or Museum to speak of. While I appreciate the fact that Taylor did not serve a full term in office, there is much to be admired about the man, both for his abilities as a General, and his potential as a President.

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Zachary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States, serving from his inauguration March 1849 until his death in July 1850, a period of just over 16 months. Taylor had been a career officer in the United States Army, who rose to the rank of major general. He became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican–American War, which made him a desirable candidate for President. Although no one knew for sure which party he belonged to, his President, James K. Polk, believed that Taylor was a Whig. Polk was correct. Taylor won election to the White House despite his vague political leanings. As President, his top priority was preserving the Union, but he died before making any progress on the hot button issue of the day, slavery. It was the issue which had been inflaming tensions in Congress and which threatened to tear the nation apart.

Taylor was born in Barboursville, Virginia three years after the end of the American Revolution. He was born into a prominent family of plantation owners who moved west, from Virginia to Kentucky when Zachary was a child. His second cousin was James Madison. Taylor joined the US Army and was commissioned as an officer in 1808. He served with distinction as a Captain in the War of 1812 and rose in the ranks in military forts along the Mississippi River. During the Black Hawk War he was promoted to Colonel in 1832. His success in the Second Seminole War attracted national attention and earned him the nickname "Old Rough and Ready".

In 1845, during the annexation of Texas, President James K. Polk dispatched Taylor to the Rio Grande, as part of a show of force in anticipation of a battle with Mexico over the disputed Texas–Mexico border. The Mexican–American War broke out in April 1846, and Taylor defeated Mexican troops commanded by General Mariano Arista at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, despite being outnumbered in both battles. Taylor then led his troops into Mexico, where they defeated Mexican troops at the Battle of Monterrey. Contrary to his orders, he led his troops further south and, despite being severely outnumbered, dealt a crushing blow to Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista. Polk felt threatened by the popularity that came with Taylor's success. He had Taylor's troops transferred to the command of Major General Winfield Scott. In spite of this, Taylor remained a very popular general, both with his troops and with the general public.

Both parties considered Taylor as a presidential candidate because nobody was sure which party Taylor supported. History suggests that as a good soldier, Taylor supported whoever his commander in chief was, and is is believed that he had never even voted. It was the Whig Party that was able to convince Taylor to lead their ticket in the 1848 presidential election, despite knowing what Taylor really stood for. At the 1848 Whig National Convention, Taylor defeated Scott and former Senator Henry Clay to win the nomination. He won the general election on a ticket with New York politician Millard Fillmore, defeating Democratic Party candidates Lewis Cass and William Orlando Butler, as well as a third-party effort led by former president Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, Sr. of the Free Soil Party. Taylor became the first president to be elected without having ever served in a prior political office.

As president, Taylor refused to be led by Henry Clay and the other Whigs in Congress, at a time when partisan tensions threatened to divide the Union. A debate was raging over the status of slavery in the territory acquired in the Mexican War. Southerners threatened to secede if slavery was not permitted in the territories. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. He was a union man who saw as his goal that of keeping the nation united. To avoid the contentious issue of slavery, he urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood.

In Congress, the Compromise of 1850 was being debated and proposed, something that Taylor was not entirely pleased with. But before he could confront the issue, he died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850. In his brief time in office, his administration's greatest accomplishment was probably the ratification of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, an accord between the US and Great Britain on a future canal through Central America.

Historians and scholars have ranked Taylor in the bottom quartile of U.S. presidents,mostly due to his short term of office. The Clayton–Bulwer Treaty affecting relations with Great Britain in Central America is viewed as an important step building on strong relations between the two nations and averting possible future confrontation in Latin America. Although historical rankings of Presidents have generally placed Taylor in the bottom quarter percentile, most surveys tend to rank him as the most effective of the four presidents from the Whig Party. Taylor was the last president to own slaves while in office. He was also the second president to die in office, preceded by William Henry Harrison, who died while serving as president nine years earlier.

In 1883, the Commonwealth of Kentucky placed a 50-foot monument topped by a life-sized statue of Taylor near his grave. During the 1920s, the Taylor family commenced work to turn the Taylor burial grounds into a national cemetery. The Commonwealth of Kentucky donated two adjacent parcels of land for the project, turning the half-acre Taylor family cemetery into 16 acres. On May 6, 1926, the remains of Taylor and his wife (who died in 1852) were moved to the newly constructed Taylor mausoleum. The cemetery property has been designated as the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. That's as close as Taylor has come to having any sort of a Presidential Museum.

Several places around the United States are named after Taylor, including: Camp Taylor in Kentucky and Fort Zachary Taylor in Florida; The SS Zachary Taylor, a World War II Liberty ship; Zachary Taylor Parkway in Louisiana; Zachary Taylor Hall at Southeastern Louisiana University. There are Taylor Counties named after him in Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky. The town of Rough and Ready, California is named for him as are the Zachary Taylor Highway in Virginia and Taylor, Michigan. He has no connection with the naming of Taylor Swift or Taylor Lautner.

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Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to circulate that Taylor was poisoned by pro-slavery Southerners. These rumors became a part of Taylor's legacy and persisted into the 21st century. In 1978, Hamilton Smith postulated his assassination theory, based on the lack of confirmed cholera outbreaks, and other material. In the late 1980s, Clara Rising, a former professor at University of Florida, persuaded Taylor's closest living relative to agree to an exhumation so that his remains could be tested. Taylor's remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner on June 17, 1991. Samples of hair, fingernail, and other tissues were removed, and radiological studies were conducted. The remains were returned to the cemetery and reinterred, with appropriate honors, in the mausoleum. Neutron activation analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning, as arsenic levels were too low. The analysis concluded Taylor had contracted "cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis", and that his food or drink was likely contaminated by harmful bacteria. Any hope for Taylor's recovery was likely prevented because of the quackery of his doctors, who treated him with "ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine" at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams). They also "bled and blistered him." Despite this, the rumors that Taylor was poisoned persist.

The Obscure Presidents: Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce is another in a string of largely forgotten Presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Like many of these men, he was a northerner who believed that the way to keep the nation together was to appease the southerners who wanted the "peculiar institution" of slavery to remain and who believed that slavery would eventually end over time. That thinking was small comfort to those who were slaves, and its immorality is apparently more obvious in these modern times. On top of the issues that President Pierce was confronted with, he was a tragic figure who experienced significant personal loss and who tried to address his stresses with alcohol. He was almost certainly an alcoholic and would eventually meet his death from cirrhosis of the liver. He is constantly ranked among the worst Presidents because of his ineffectiveness in preventing the breakup of the nation, and in fact by hastening it through the ill-conceived "Kansas-Nebraska Act."


Pierce was born in New Hampshire. His father had fought in the Revolutionary War and had also been a state legislator. Franklin Pierce represented his state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 to 1837 and in the US Senate from 1837 to 1842. He resigned from the Senate and operated a successful private law practice in New Hampshire, In 1845 he was appointed U.S. Attorney for his state. He left home to serve in the Mexican–American War as a brigadier general in the Army. At the Battle of Contreras he was injured when a horse fell on him, and his inability to fight later led to unfounded accusations of cowardice that would later be used against him politically. In his autobiography, Ulysses S. Grant attests to Pierce's honorable service and bravery, while disapproving of his politics.

When the election of 1852 rolled around, Pierce was seen by Democrats as a compromise candidate who could unite northern and southern interests. He was nominated as the party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. He and running mate William Rufus King defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott (his commander in the Mexican War) and William A. Graham in the 1852 presidential election.

On route to his nomination, tragedy struck when a train derailed and the Pierce's only surviving child, a son named Benny, was killed. The Pierces had lost two other children previously and the tragic circumstances of Benny's death left the parents devastated. Pierce's wife Jane saw the event as some sort of punishment from God for her husband's political hubris and for a time she refused to live in Washington. The tragedy likely contributed to Pierce's excessive drinking.

As president, Pierce wanted to attempt to enforce neutral standards for civil service, but this was difficult to do while also satisfying the diverse elements of the Democratic Party with patronage. His effort largely failed and turned many in his party against him, especially the New York faction. Pierce subscribed to an expansionist vision. He signed the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico and led a failed attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain. He also signed trade treaties with Britain and Japan. As a manager he was able to see his Cabinet reform their departments and improve accountability.

However these minor successes were overshadowed by political strife during his presidency. His popularity dropped significantly in the Northern states after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, legislation which nullified the Missouri Compromise. Many in the South continued to support him, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to violent conflict over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce supported the pro-slavery factions, even though they promoted violence and appeared to be a minority that had acquired political success fraudulently. Pierce's administration was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba, a document which was severely criticized.

Pierce expected to be renominated by the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election, but was abandoned by his party. His reputation in the North suffered further during the Civil War as he became a vocal critic of President Abraham Lincoln. He had kept in correspondence with Jefferson Davis, an old friend who had once been a member of Pierce's cabinet. This further damaged his reputation.

Pierce's family life continued to be an unhappy one and his wife Jane suffered from illness and depression for much of her life. Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. Historians and scholars generally rank Pierce as one of the worst and least memorable U.S. Presidents.

After Pierce died, Americans didn't really think about him very much. He was considered to be one of a series of antebellum presidents whose fumbled their way towards a civil war. Scholars mostly considered Pierce's presidency to be a failure, and in rankings of presidents, he is ranked near the bottom, usually among the four worst. A survey of the public placed him third-to-last among his peers in C-SPAN surveys conducted in 2000 and 2009. Although he did not lead that fight — Senator Stephen Douglas did — Pierce gets blamed for the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act. His failure of Pierce, as president, to achieve sectional conciliation and his kicking the can of slavery down the road along with other presidents helped bring an end to the dominance of the Democratic Party that had began with Andrew Jackson. Republicans dominated national politics for most of the next seven decades as a result. As historian Eric Foner puts it, "His administration turned out to be one of the most disastrous in American history. It witnessed the collapse of the party system inherited from the Age of Jackson".

Roy Nichols is probably Pierce's leading biographer. Nichols' assessment of Pierce's legacy is telling. He wrote:

"As a national political leader Pierce was an accident. He was honest and tenacious of his views but, as he made up his mind with difficulty and often reversed himself before making a final decision, he gave a general impression of instability. Kind, courteous, generous, he attracted many individuals, but his attempts to satisfy all factions failed and made him many enemies. In carrying out his principles of strict construction he was most in accord with Southerners, who generally had the letter of the law on their side. He failed utterly to realize the depth and the sincerity of Northern feeling against the South and was bewildered at the general flouting of the law and the Constitution, as he described it, by the people of his own New England. At no time did he catch the popular imagination. His inability to cope with the difficult problems that arose early in his administration caused him to lose the respect of great numbers, especially in the North, and his few successes failed to restore public confidence. He was an inexperienced man, suddenly called to assume a tremendous responsibility, who honestly tried to do his best without adequate training or temperamental fitness."


Pierce's biggest flaw is that he saw slavery as a question of property rather than one of morality. He considered the actions of abolitionists as divisive and as a threat to the rights of southerners, without any thought of the human rights of those held in slavery. He criticized those who sought to limit or end slavery. Nor is his legacy rescued by any foreign policy or legislative success. The Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas–Nebraska Act were both disasters. Both attracted what one historian describes as "an avalanche of public criticism."

Historian Larry Gara is somewhat more charitable towards Pierce's presidency. He notes that Pierce faced an impossible task. Gara writes:

"He was president at a time that called for almost superhuman skills, yet he lacked such skills and never grew into the job to which he had been elected. His view of the Constitution and the Union was from the Jacksonian past. He never fully understood the nature or depth of Free Soil sentiment in the North. He was able to negotiate a reciprocal trade treaty with Canada, to begin the opening of Japan to western trade, to add land to the Southwest, and to sign legislation for the creation of an overseas empire [the Guano Islands Act]. His Cuba and Kansas policies led only to deeper sectional strife. His support for the Kansas–Nebraska Act and his determination to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act helped polarize the sections. Pierce was hard-working and his administration largely untainted by graft, yet the legacy from those four turbulent years contributed to the tragedy of secession and civil war."

The Obscure Presidents: James Monroe

James Monroe might be the most under-rated President. If he had a theme song, it might be "anything you can do, I can do better" because he led such an accomplished life, and yet people know so little about him. They are even misinformed on some of the things they think they know about him. When most people think of James Monroe, if they think of him at all, it is for the doctrine that bears his name. Many people claim that the Monroe Doctrine is really the work of his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Still, there is much to admire about the 5th President of the United States. When the trivia question is posed: which two-term President was wounded in war, sat in Congress, was Governor of his state as well as it's US Senator, held two cabinet posts, was Ambassador to France and England, and won re-election by near acclamation, most people are stumped. The man accomplished a lot.

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Monroe was born into a planter family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. But it was not a wealthy family, especially after his father died when young James was just a teenager. He was able to attend school with help from a rich uncle, but he dropped out to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. After crossing the Delaware as part of George Washington's army, Monroe was wounded at the Battle of Trenton and nearly died, but was saved by the timely intervention of a surgeon who had happened to accompany the unit that Monroe was in at the last minute.

After studying law under Thomas Jefferson from 1780 to 1783, Monroe served as a delegate in the Continental Congress. As a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Monroe opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution. He lost an election to the first US Congress to his friend (and later his boss) James Madison. In 1790, he won election to the Senate, where he became a leader of the Democratic-Republican Party. He left the Senate in 1794 to serve as President George Washington's ambassador to France, but was recalled by Washington in 1796. Monroe won election as Governor of Virginia in 1799.

Monroe was appointed as President Thomas Jefferson's special envoy to help negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, through which the United States nearly doubled in size. Monroe unsuccessfully challenged Madison in the 1808 presidential election, but in April 1811 he joined Madison's administration as Secretary of State. During the later stages of the War of 1812, Monroe simultaneously served as Madison's Secretary of State and Secretary of War. His war-time leadership established him as Madison's heir apparent, and he easily defeated Federalist Party candidate Rufus King in the 1816 presidential election.

Monroe's presidency ushered in what became known as the Era of Good Feelings, as the Federalist Party collapsed as a national political force. Rather than gloat, Monroe embarked on a goodwill tour, going into the heart of enemy political territory to let New Englanders known that he was President of all the people. He was very well received.

As president, Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and banned slavery from territories north of the parallel 36°30′ north. In foreign affairs, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams favored a policy of conciliation with Britain and a policy of expansionism against the Spanish Empire. In the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain, the United States secured Florida and established its western border with New Spain.

Monroe was re-elected in 1820, with every electoral vote, save for one faithless elector who decided to cast his vote for John Quincy Adams. According to some versions, the elector did this so that George Washington would retain the honor of being the only President to win the presidency by capturing all electoral votes. (Others say that the guy just didn't like Monroe). In 1823, Monroe announced the United States' opposition to any European intervention in the recently independent countries of the Americas with what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. This pronouncement has become a landmark in American foreign policy. Monroe was also a member of the American Colonization Society, which supported the colonization of Africa by freed slaves. Liberia's capital of Monrovia is named in his honor.

Following his retirement in 1825, Monroe left office a poorer man than when he entered it. He was plagued by financial difficulties and was forced to sell his Virginia property and move in with his daughter and her husband in New York. He died in New York City on the 4th of July in 1831.

Though he lived in the shadow of men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, James Monroe presided over a pivotal period in United States history, as the nation began to turn away from European affairs and focus more on domestic issues. His presidency saw the United States settle many of its longstanding boundary issues through an accommodation with Britain and the acquisition of Florida. Monroe also helped resolve sectional tensions for the time being through his support of the Missouri Compromise and by seeking support from all regions of the country. Through the looking glass of hindsight, Monroe presents as a more effective executive than some of his better-known predecessors. Sadly, many just remember him for his old-world style of dress, as the last President to wear a powdered wig tied in a queue, a tricorne hat and knee-breeches.

Monroe's visage never found its way onto any currency. He was the inspiration for seventeen Monroe counties as well as for the cities of Monroe, Maine (incorporated in 1818), Monroe, Michigan and Monroe, Georgia (incorporated in 1821), and Monroe, Connecticut (incorporated in 1823). The Township of Monroe, in central New Jersey, founded in 1838, bears his name as well and Fort Monroe is named for him.


Polls of historians and political scientists tend to rank Monroe as an above average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Monroe as the eighteenth best president, while a 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Monroe as the thirteenth best president. A ranking of the Presidents by members of this community conducted in 2012 ranked Monroe much higher at number 7.

As I write this, I am several chapters in to Tim McGrath's wonderful new doorstop of a book simply entitled James Monroe: A Life, for which a review will eventually follow. My admiration for the book's subject remains undiminished.

Memorial Day 2020

Today is Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for those men and women who have died in the military service of the United States. It is unclear where the concept originated, as over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Organized women's groups in the South were decorating the graves of fallen soldiers before the end of the Civil War. In a speech given in May of 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day but according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs:

"Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va.[in 1866]. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried."


Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan, the head of an organization of Union veterans the Grand Army of the Republic — established "Decoration Day" as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Logan, who became a congressman from Illinois (and one of the men who led prosecuted the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson) declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The day was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states.

The states in the former Confederacy refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

In 1915, poet Moina Michael raised the idea of wearing red poppies on Memorial day, in the same way that this tradition is followed in some British Commonwealth countries on Remembrance Day, as a way to honor those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.


Since the late 50's on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. Beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye's Heights (the Luminaria Program). In 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

In December 2000, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.


The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. On May 21, 2020, President Donald Trump issued a Proclamation declaring Memorial Day 2020 to be "A Day of Prayer for Permanent Peace". Here is the text of his proclamation:

Since the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War, Americans have answered the call to duty and given their lives in service to our Nation and its sacred founding ideals. As we pay tribute to the lives and legacies of these patriots on Memorial Day, we also remember that they sacrificed to create a better, more peaceful future for our Nation and the world. We recommit to realizing that vision, honoring the service of so many who have placed love of country above all else.

As Americans, we will always defend our freedom and our liberty. When those principles are threatened, we will respond with uncompromising force and unparalleled vigor. Generation after generation, our country’s finest have defended our Republic with honor and distinction. Memorials, monuments, and rows of white crosses and stars in places close to home like Arlington, Virginia and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as well as far-flung battlefields in places like Flanders Field in Belgium and Busan in Korea, will forever memorialize their heroic actions, standing as solemn testaments to the price of freedom. We will never take for granted the blood shed by these gallant men and women, as we are forever indebted to them and their families.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied victories over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. As we commemorate these seminal events, we also remember the tremendous cost at which these victories came. More than 400,000 souls of the Greatest Generation perished during this titanic struggle to liberate the world from tyranny. In his address to the Nation on Japan’s surrender, President Truman’s words remind us all of our enduring obligation to these patriots for their sacrifice: “It is our responsibility — ours the living — to see to it that this victory shall be a monument worthy of the dead who died to win it.” As we pause to recall the lives lost from the ranks of our Armed Forces, we remain eternally grateful for the path they paved toward a world made freer from oppression.

Our fallen warriors gave their last breath for our country and our freedom. Today, let us pause in quiet reverence to reflect on the incredible dedication of these valiant men and women and their families, invoking divine Providence as we continue pursuing our noble goal of lasting peace for the world.

In honor and recognition of all of our fallen heroes, the Congress, by a joint resolution approved May 11, 1950, as amended (36 U.S.C. 116), has requested the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period on that day when the people of the United States might unite in prayer. The Congress, by Public Law 106-579, has also designated 3:00 p.m. local time on that day as a time for all Americans to observe, in their own way, the National Moment of Remembrance.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time when people might unite in prayer.

I further ask all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.

I also request the Governors of the United States and its Territories, and the appropriate officials of all units of government, to direct that, on Memorial Day, the flag be flown at half-staff until noon on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels throughout the United States and in all areas under its jurisdiction and control. I also request the people of the United States to display the flag at half-staff from their homes for the customary forenoon period.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-first day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.


The Obscure Presidents: Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson briefly was remembered in news reports recently when the subject of the current president's impeachment took place. That seems to be how it goes for Johnson. He's usually not remembered for anything good. Johnson is another of those presidents who often dwells close to the bottom when it comes to rankings of the presidents. He was selected as Abraham Lincoln's running mate in the 1864 election when Lincoln thought it was a good idea to run on a ticket of national unity as opposed to party loyalty. Johnson was a Democrat, Lincoln was a Republican. Johnson was a southerner, Lincoln was from the north. But both believed that it was paramount that the Union be preserved at all cost, so when the 1864 election neared, Lincoln convinced his party to drop Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket, change its name from Republican to Nation Union, and add Johnson to the ticket. Little did Lincoln know that six weeks into his term, Johnson would become President.

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Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. His family was very poor and his father died when Andrew was three years old. When his mother remarried, it was to another poor farmer. Andrew never attended school. He was apprenticed as a tailor, but ran away from his apprenticeship. He worked in several frontier towns before settling in Greeneville, Tennessee.

From his humble origins, Johnson rose through the political ranks. He served as alderman and mayor of Greeneville before being elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1835. After brief service in the Tennessee Senate, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843, where he served five two-year terms. He became Governor of Tennessee for four years beginning in 1853, and was elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1857. While in Congress, he pressed for passage of the Homestead Bill, which was enacted soon after he left his Senate seat in 1862.

Tennessee was a southern slave states, and it seceded to join the Confederate States of America in 1861. This was something that Johnson had campaigned against. He remained firmly with the Union even after his state seceded. Johnson was the only sitting senator from a Confederate state who did not resign his seat upon learning of his state's secession. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln appointed him as military governor of Tennessee after most of it had been recaptured by Union forces.

In 1864, Lincoln picked Johnson as his running mate in the election. Johnson was a War Democrat and a southern Unionist, and Lincoln wanted to send a message of national unity in his reelection campaign. After some initial concern that he might not be re-elected, Lincoln was assisted by some wartime successes. The National Union ticket easily won the election, defeating the petulant former Union General George McClellan.

When Johnson was sworn in as vice president in March 1865, he appeared to be very drunk and gave a rambling speech, after which he secluded himself out of embarrassment. But six weeks later, the assassination of Lincoln made him President of the United States.

With the war ended, Johnson implemented his own form of reconstruction, one that drew the ire of the Radical Republicans. He issued a series of proclamations directing the seceded states to hold conventions and elections to reform their civil governments. When Southern states returned many of their old leaders, they passed Black Codes to deprive the freed former slaves of many civil liberties. Congressional Republicans refused to seat legislators from those states and advanced legislation to overrule the Southern actions, but Johnson vetoed their bills, and Congressional Republicans overrode his vetoes. This would become a pattern for the remainder of his presidency.

Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves. But he couldn't stop the tide of history. In 1866, Johnson thought he would take his case to the people. He went on a national tour promoting his executive policies and attacking his Republican opponents. His "swing around the circle" tour was a disaster.

The conflict between the branches of government grew even more. Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, restricting Johnson's ability to fire Cabinet officials. When he persisted in trying to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, he was impeached by the House of Representatives. Johnson narrowly avoided conviction in the Senate and removal from office. He tried and failed to win the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination and left office in 1869.

Johnson returned to Tennessee after his presidency was over. He looked for political vindication, and achieved a measure of success as he was elected to the Senate again in 1875, making Johnson the only former president to serve in the Senate. By now he was in poor health and he died months into his term.

There are some who praised Johnson for being a strict constitutionalist. But his strong opposition to federally guaranteed rights for African Americans has caused history to look back on his presidency very critically. He is regarded by many historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. In the first few decades after Johnson left office, memoirs from northerners such as former vice president Henry Wilson and Maine Senator James G. Blaine, portrayed Johnson as an obstinate boor whose Reconstruction policies favored the South. At the turn of the 20th century, his reputation was rehabilitated somewhat. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Ford Rhodes ascribed Johnson's faults to his personal weaknesses, and blamed him for the problems of the postbellum South. But other early 20th-century historians, such as John Burgess, Woodrow Wilson, and William Dunning, all southerners gave Johnson for trying to carry out Lincoln's plans for the South in good faith. Wilson, a future president, wrote about Reconstruction as being a vindictive program that hurt all southerners, helped northern opportunists (pejoratively called "Carpetbaggers"), and allowed cynical white southerners (called "Scalawags") to exploit alliances with African-Americans for political gain.

Another group of historians were more generous to Johnson, using Johnson's papers to support their arguments. David Miller DeWitt's The Impeachment and Trial of President Andrew Johnson, written in 1903, presented Johnson far more favorably than other contemporary historians. James Schouler's 1913 work "History of the Reconstruction Period" described Johnson's Reconstruction policies as fundamentally correct. There were a series of highly favorable biographies in the late 1920s and early 1930s that glorified Johnson and criticized his enemies. In 1948, a poll of historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger deemed Johnson among the average presidents, and one conducted in 1956 by Clinton L. Rossiter assessed Johnson as one of the near-great presidents. Rossiter and others at the time saw the Reconstruction era as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused and their contemporary racist viewpoint blamed this on granting former slaves the right to vote.

In the 1950s, this point of view changed as historians began to consider the African-American experience during Reconstruction. They rejected previous claims that former slaves were somehow inferior, a point of view that had been a premise of many earlier historical works. The developing Civil Rights Movement was ushering history into a new age of enlightenment. These historians concurred with the Radical Republicans and with their desire to help African Americans. They saw Johnson as callous towards the freedman. In a number of works from 1956 onwards by such historians as Fawn Brodie, Johnson was depicted as a successful saboteur of efforts to better the freedman's lives.

In the early 21st century, Johnson is now among those commonly mentioned as the worst presidents, because of his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his abrasive personality, and his misplaced ego. Johnson is blamed for having resisted Radical Republican policies aimed at securing the rights and well-being of the newly emancipated African-Americans. Johnson's biographer Annette Gordon-Reed notes that Johnson, along with his contemporaries Pierce and Buchanan, are generally listed among the five worst presidents, but concedes that, in her words, "there have never been more difficult times in the life of this nation. The problems these men had to confront were enormous. It would have taken a succession of Lincolns to do them justice." Another biographer, Hans Trefousse, describes Johnson's legacy as being rooted in "the maintenance of white supremacy." He adds, "His boost to Southern conservatives by undermining Reconstruction was his legacy to the nation, one that would trouble the country for generations to come."

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A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Johnson as the seventh-worst president, while a 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Johnson as the second-worst president. A 2006 poll of historians ranked Johnson's decision to oppose greater equality for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War as the second-worst mistake ever made by a sitting president. Johnson was likely the worst possible person to become President at the end of the Civil War. In the words of historian Elizabeth Varon, Johnson is remembered as "a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas. Most importantly, Johnson's strong commitment to obstructing political and civil rights for blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well."

The Obcure Presidents: Donald Trump?

Donald Trump personifies the word ubiquitous. He is everywhere: in the news, all over social media, in the world of entertainment, it is hard to escape mention of his name in any day. Donald John Trump's Presidency is still a work in progress. It could end on January 20, 2021, or it could last as long as January 20, 2025. Trump enjoys a fierce loyalty among his supporters and is fiercely hated by those who oppose him. Hate is not too strong a word, emotions run strong among Trump's detractors. Some of his supporters have been called "Deplorables" by Hillary Clinton, Trump's opponent in the 2016 election, and many wear that label with pride. Conversely, those who oppose Trump do so with such a fervor that a name has been given to the level of their anger: Trump Derangement Syndrome. Those in the middle of these two extremes are a much smaller group than in the case of most presidents, but there are still those who would like to see Donald Trump succeed in some of his goals, such as improving the lot of the working class, but who also wish that he would stop posting such childish sounding tweets. The question that is still unanswered is how history will remember his presidency a century from now?


It is said by some (and disputed by others) that James K. Polk came into the presidency with a checklist of four main things that he wanted to accomplish and that "in four short years he met his every goal". If Donald Trump had such a list, it might be (1) Build a wall along the border between the US and Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out of the country; (2) Cancel existing trade deals with other nations and replace them with terms more favorable to US workers; (3) Ban immigration from a number of Muslim nations deemed to be a haven for terrorists; and (4) Repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Many people didn't take Donald Trump seriously as a Presidential candidate. Comedians saw his entry into the race as fodder for their acts and a majority of Hollywood united against Trump's candidacy. Many of his opponents cited character issues such as alleged dishonest business practices like non-payment of creditors, as well as a history of demeaning women that some allege went so far as acts of sexual assault. But his opponents soon learned that they underestimated him at their peril. During the election campaign, none of these criticisms mattered to enough voters to in enough states to give Trump a majority of votes in the electoral college. What they heard was that Trump was asking why in an age of globalization and free trade, so many American workers had been left behind economically? Why had the banks and Wall Street recovered from the great recession so quickly, but mainstream American workers had not? It was ironic for this message to come from someone with Trump's background, but he captured the attention of many average voters. While other candidates from the political establishment were telling voters that they were better off with globalization and free trade, Trump disagreed, and voters listened.

The presidency of Donald Trump began on January 20, 2017, when Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Many protested, chanting "not my President", but for those who believe in the Constitution, he was their President. While Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, he won the Electoral College vote, 304 to 227, and by the law of the land, that made him President. Many accused Trump of benefiting from a Russian sabotage campaign to skew the results, but an intense investigation has failed to show that Trump's victory was decided anywhere but at the ballot box.

Many of Trump's policies are concerning to many Americans, and many elsewhere in the world. So far he has repealed environmental protections intended to address climate change. He ended the Clean Power Plan, withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and has called for subsidies to increase fossil fuel production. He calls man-made climate change a "hoax".

Trump has failed in his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. However he has signed legislation eliminating the individual mandate provision. He also enacted a partial repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act that had previously imposed stricter constraints on banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He also withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which lowered corporate and estate taxes, and most individual income tax rates on a temporary basis.

On the foreign stage, Trump has called for closer ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel. He agreed to sell 110 billion dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia, and has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He withdrew the United States from a deal made by the Obama administration with Iran Deal, and issued a controversial executive order denying entry into the U.S. to citizens from several Muslim-majority countries.

Trump's demand for federal funding of a U.S.–Mexico border wall resulted in the 2018–2019 government shutdown (the longest in American history). When the shutdown failed to gain funding for the wall, Trump issued a declaration of a national emergency along the U.S. southern border. He also ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

One of the most enduring aspects of a President's legacy often comes from how he shapes the Supreme Court. Trump has appointed Neil Gorsuch and the more controversial Brett Kavanaugh to the Court, continuing the court's conservative dominance.


Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey in 2017, a move praised by some and seen by others as political interference in an independent agency. Special Counsel Robert Muller, himself a former FBI Director, was appointed to take over an existing FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections as well as any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Six Trump campaign advisors and staff were indicted and five pled guilty to criminal charges brought in the Special Counsel investigation. Trump has repeatedly denied accusations of collusion and obstruction of justice. He has been highly critical of the investigation, calling it a politically motivated "witch hunt". When the investigation was completed, Attorney General William Barr released a summary of the report to Congress. According to the summary, the investigation found no evidence that Trump or any other members of his campaign "conspired or coordinated" with Russia, although it was clear that Russia did attempt to influence the election. According to Barr, the report did not conclude that Trump criminally obstructed justice, nor did it exonerate him.

Trump has drawn significant criticism for his administration's policy of separating children from parents caught unlawfully crossing the southern border into the United States. Parents are charged with a misdemeanor and jailed, while their children were placed in separate detention centers. Members of Congress from both parties have condemned this practice. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, "President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call." The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association have condemned the policy. All four living former First Ladies of the United States—Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama—have condemned the policy. On June 20, 2018, Trump signed an executive order to end family separations at the U.S. border. On July 26, the administration said that 1,442 children had been reunited with their parents while 711 remain in government shelters because their cases are still under review.

FDR used radio to communicate directly with the public, subsequent presidents took to the airwaves. Donald Trump extensively uses the social media app Twitter to personally tweet from @realDonaldTrump, his personal account. His use of Twitter has been unconventional for a president. In May of 2018, a federal judge ruled that Trump's blocking of other Twitter users due to opposing political views violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and that he must unblock them. The administration has appealed the court's ruling.

Trump's tweets are often made late at night or in the early hours of the morning. He has used Twitter to pressure his political opponents and potential political allies to pass legislation. While trying to pass the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, Trump attacked the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose support he needed. He repeatedly uses belittling nicknames such as Little Marco (for Marco Rubio), Lyin' Ted (for Ted Cruz), and Crooked Hillary (for Hillary Clinton) for his opponents during his campaign. He used the nickname "Rocket Man" for Kim Jong Un of North Korea both in tweets and at a United Nations meeting. Trump has used Twitter to attack federal judges who have ruled against him in court cases and also to criticize officials within his own administration, including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then-National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Tillerson was eventually fired via a tweet by Trump.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the President is praised by his supporters for his leadership and his calling out of China for allegedly creating the problem. His opponents criticize him for his rejection of science, his short-attention span in not listening to his experts, and his thoughtless speculating out loud of nonsensical ways to fight the pandemic. (His supporters say his comments are taken vastly out of context).

Trump has had a highly polarized approval rating. Trump’s approval rating during his first term has ranged from 35% to 43%. His two-year average Gallup approval rating was the lowest of any president since World War II. If, as some believe, all publicity is good publicity, then Trump has a lot of good publicity. A large number of books have been written about him, his administration, the state of democracy in America, the rise of populism, the reasons for his success, the state of the Republican Party, alleged chaos in his White House and many other topics.

A 2018 poll administered by the American Political Science Association (APSA) among political scientists specializing in the American presidency had Donald Trump appearing for the first time. In that survey, Republican respondents rated him 40th out of 44th, independents rated him 43rd out of 44th and not surprisingly, Democratic historians rated him 44th out of 44th. Siena College Research Institute's 6th presidential expert poll, released in February 2019, placed Trump 42nd out of 44th, ahead of Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.

What will Donald Trump's legacy be a century from now? Will historians continue to lump him in with the Buchanans and the Andrew Johnsons of the world? Or will his populist appeal invite a reconsideration of his reputation, based on his connection with those outside of the establishment? Are the many criticisms of Trump valid or even understated? Or are they an amplified message from political elites and those in the entertainment industry that don't reflect the viewpoint of the average wage-earner?


In some cases, Presidential legacies remain solid over decades, even centuries. In other cases, legacies are reassessed as values change. For example, with a greater appreciation of the importance of civil rights and racial and gender equality, the reputations of Presidents such as Lincoln, Grant, Truman, and even Warren Harding, have improved (and in the latter cases they have been rehabilitated to a certain extent), while those such as Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson have declined because of their abhorrent policies of overt racism such as Jackson's "Indian Removal" policy and Wilson's segregationist policies.

Whatever the future holds for President Trump's legacy, it is clear that he will not join the ranks of the obscure any time soon.

The Obscure Presidents: William Henry Harrison

Considering how brief his term as President was, it is surprising that William Henry Harrison is not the most obscure President in this series. Harrison was president for just 31 or 32 days (depending on whether you count partial days). He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, and on April 4th of that same year, he was dead. The brevity of his term as President is what makes him unique. Perhaps this t-shirt by Zazzle best sums it up:

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It probably wasn't really the best month ever, and in fact the shortness of the term makes it impossible for historians to include Harrison in any serious ranking of the Presidents. Although he died early on in his presidency, Harrison had an accomplished life nonetheless. He was the son of a Founding Father, Benjamin Harrison V, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was the paternal grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States. He was also the last president born as a British royal subject in the original Thirteen Colonies before the American Revolution started in 1775, and he was the first president to die in office, creating quite the Constitutional kerfuffle as the great minds of the day tried to figure out if his Vice-President, John Tyler, would now be President, Vice-President acting as President, place holder or figurehead.

William Henry Harrison was the first member elected to the United States House of Representatives from the Northwest Territory. Later he became the first governor of the Indiana Territory. He famously led U.S. military and state militia forces against indigenous tribes at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he earned his nickname, "Old Tippecanoe". He was promoted to major general in the regular United States Army in the War of 1812, and served in the Battle of the Thames in Canada the following year.

After the war, Harrison moved to Ohio, where he was elected again to the House of Representatives. In 1824, the state legislature elected him to the United States Senate. He never served a full term though, because in May of 1828, John Quincy Adams appointed him as Minister Plenipotentiary to Colombia. In turn that gig was cut short, because when Andrew Jackson was elected President that November, and inaugurated as President the following March, he fired Harrison for being an Adams appointee. It seemed that Harrison was embarking on a pattern of not finishing what he started.

Harrison returned to private life in Ohio, where he remained until 1836, when he was nominated for the presidency as the Whig Party candidate in the election of that year. Actually he was one of five Whig candidates for President in a unique strategy designed to defeat Democratic vice president Martin Van Buren and hopefully throw the election to the House of Representatives, who would surely select a Whig for President. The strategy failed, as Van Buren won a majority in the electoral college.

In 1840, the Party nominated Harrison again, with John Tyler as his running mate. Harrison and Tyler became famous as "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", and in one of the more brilliant electoral marketing campaigns in early US presidential history, Harrison defeated Van Buren in the 1840 election.

Harrison was the oldest person to be elected president until Ronald Reagan in 1980 and later Donald Trump in 2016. To prove that hie was still vigorous and healthy, Harrison delivered what still holds the record for the longest inaugural address in Presidential history: 8.445 words, and that was after he had asked Daniel Webster to help him edit it. It took over two hours to read. Many people believe that Harrison caught pneumonia that day because he spoke so long out in the cold without wearing a hat or a coat. But really Harrison didn't get sick until more than three weeks later. What he needed was rest to recover. Harrison tried to rest in the White House, but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers. As he became more and more ill, his doctors tried several cures, such as applying opium, castor oil, leeches, and Virginia snakeweed. Unsurprisingly, the treatments only made Harrison worse. He even became delirious. Harrison died nine days after becoming ill, at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 4, 1841. Harrison's doctor, Thomas Miller, diagnosed Harrison's cause of death as "pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung". A medical analysis made in 2014 concluded that he likely died of septic shock due to enteric fever.

Among Harrison's most lasting legacies is the series of treaties that he either negotiated or signed with indigenous leaders during his tenure as the Indiana territorial governor. As part of the treaty negotiations, the first nations tribes ceded large tracts of land in the west that was used for purchase and settlement. Harrison's only real presidential legacy lies in his campaign in 1840, which remains a classic.

Harrison entered the presidency giving the impression that he intended to be his own man and not merely the pawn of Whig leaders such as Henry Clay. In his brief time in office, Harrison visited each of the six executive departments to observe their operations. He issued an order to all departments that electioneering by employees would be considered grounds for dismissal from now on.

On March 16, a group of Whigs from Clay's faction arrived in Harrison's office to demand the removal of all Democrats from any appointed office. An angry Harrison responded by telling them "So help me God, I will resign my office before I can be guilty of such an iniquity!" When his own cabinet attempted to countermand the president's appointment of John Chambers as Governor of Iowa, and appoint Webster's friend, General James Wilson instead, Harrison quashed this at a March 25th cabinet meeting. At the meeting, it is said that Harrison handed Webster a handwritten note and asked him to read it out loud. The note simply said "William Henry Harrison, President of the United States". Harrison then proclaimed "William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, tells you, gentlemen, that, by God, John Chambers shall be governor of Iowa!"

Harrison called a special session of Congress, one which he thought at first to be unnecessary. Clay pressed Harrison on the issue in a meeting the two had on March 13. Harrison told Clay that he did not require his advice and instructed him not to visit the White House again, and to address him only in writing. But a few days later, Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing reported to Harrison that federal funds were so bad that the government could not continue to operate unless Congress held the special session. Harrison gave in and on March 17 proclaimed the special session in the interests of "the condition of the revenue and finance of the country". The session was scheduled to begin on May 31.

Harrison was the first sitting incumbent president to have his photograph taken. The image was made in Washington, D.C., on his inauguration day in 1841. This was the first presidential photograph. The original daguerreotype of Harrison on his inauguration day has been lost—although at least one early photographic copy exists in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Harrison died in poor financial shape. Congress voted his wife, Anna, a presidential widow's pension of $25,000, one year of Harrison's salary, along with the right to mail letters free of charge. Harrison's son, John Scott Harrison, represented Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1853 and 1857. Harrison's grandson, Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, served as the 23rd U.S. president from 1889 to 1893, making William and Benjamin Harrison the only grandparent-grandchild pair of U.S. presidents.

Several monuments and memorial statues have been erected in tribute to Harrison. There are public statues of him in downtown Indianapolis, Cincinnati's Piatt Park, the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, Harrison County, Indiana, and Owen County, Indiana. Numerous counties and towns also bear his name. A monument to him exists at the site of his tomb in North Bend, Ohio, just west of Cincinnati. He was the subject of an episode in season 7 of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. He is portrayed in two movies, both times as a General, not as President.

The Obscure Presidents: Grover Cleveland

If Grover Cleveland has left no other legacy, he can always be remembered as the guy who messed up the system of counting presidents. Over the history of the United States, forty-four different men have been elected or have through some other Constitutionally approved manner become the nation's President, but for some reason, somebody once decided that Cleveland would be counted twice, as the 22nd and 24th President. To date he is the only President ever elected to non-consecutive terms. In 1888 when he was re-elected, instead of simply saying "we've re-elected the 22nd President" like they do with incumbents, someone decided to count him twice. But there is surely more to the man's legacy than just this anomaly. After all, he was the first Democrat elected to the office after the Civil War (unless you believe that Samuel Tilden was robbed in 1876), and he was the only person, prior to FDR, to win the popular vote in a presidential election three times in a row.

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His full name was Stephen Grover Cleveland and he was born in New Jersey in 1837, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He went to Buffalo, New York where he studied law with Millard Fillmore's old law firm, before going out on his own. He became assistant district attorney of Erie County. When the Civil War began, Cleveland decided not to join the fight and instead paid $150 to hire a substitute to fight for him, something that the law allowed. In 1870 he was elected Sheriff of Erie County and in that role he served as the hangman for two executions.

In the 1880s Cleveland's political career was on fire. He was elected as the Mayor of Buffalo in 1882, and later that year his party picked him as its candidate for Governor of New York. He won that election in November and was sworn in the following January of 1883. He had won his party's nomination without the support of the corrupt political machine known as Tammany Hall, and by doing so he was given the nickname "Grover the Good". The following year, in 1884, Samuel Tilden was seen as the front runner for the Democratic Party's nomination for President, but when Tilden declined to seek the nomination due to poor health, the party selected Cleveland, once again over the objections of Tammany Hall.

Cleveland's reputation for honesty helped him defeat James G. Blaine in the presidential election that year. Blaine was attacked for a number of political skeletons in his closet. Cleveland was attacked on his character, after a woman named Maria Halpin alleged that Cleveland was the father of her illegitimate child. Cleveland had in fact paid child support for the baby, but claimed that he was doing so to protect the reputation of the real father, his friend Oscar Folsom. The voting public either believed him or didn't care about the issue and Cleveland was elected President by 31 electoral votes and just a quarter of a percent in the popular vote.

Cleveland was the leader of a group of pro-business members of his party known as the Bourbon Democrats. They opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism attracted widespread support from American conservatives of the era. Cleveland fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. He even drew support from the like-minded wing of the Republican Party, called the "Mugwumps", largely bolted the GOP presidential ticket and swung to his support in the 1884 election. He was not a great supporter of civil rights for African-Americans and towed his party's line when it came to seeing Reconstruction as a failed experiment.

Clevend came into office as the second bachelor to be elected President. That changed amid some controversy. In 1885 the daughter of Cleveland's friend Oscar Folsom visited him in Washington. Frances Folsom had been a student at Wells College and Cleveland received her mother's permission to correspond with her while Frances was a teenager. On June 2, 1886, Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room at the White House. This marriage was unusual, since Cleveland was the executor of Oscar Folsom's estate and had supervised Frances's upbringing after her father's death. At 21 years, Frances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest First Lady in history. Her husband was 51.

In his bid for re-election in 1888, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, largely due to the issue of protectionism for many of the norther states, something he opposed and his opponent supporter. Undaunted, he ran for president once again in 1892 and was successful after the nation once again soured on high tariffs and their inflationary effect. As his second administration began, the Panic of 1893 struck, producing a severe national depression, which Cleveland was unable to reverse. It ruined his Democratic Party, opening the way for a Republican landslide in 1894, and for a loss of control of the Democratic Party for his conservative wing. The agrarian and silverite factions gained control of the party in 1896. Cleveland was now on the outside looking in.

As President, Cleveland drew criticism for his intervention in the Pullman Strike of 1894. This angered labor unions nationwide. His support of the gold standard and opposition to Free Silver alienated the agrarian wing of the Democratic Party. Critics complained that Cleveland did little to tackle the nation's economic depression. Throughout all of this however, his reputation for honesty and good character seemed to survive. Biographer Allan Nevins wrote, that Cleveland "possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not." By the end of his second term, public perception showed him to be one of the most unpopular U.S. presidents, and he was by then rejected even by most Democrats. Cleveland's health had been declining for several years, and in the autumn of 1907 he became seriously ill. In 1908, he suffered a heart attack and died on June 24 at age 71. His last words were, "I have tried so hard to do right." He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.

In his first term in office, Cleveland bought a farmhouse in a rural upland part of the District of Columbia, in 1886, and remodeled it into a Queen Anne style summer estate. He sold Oak View upon losing his bid for re-election in 1888. Not long thereafter, suburban residential development reached the area, which came to be known as Oak View, and then Cleveland Heights, and eventually Cleveland Park. Grover Cleveland Hall at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York are also named after him. Cleveland Hall houses the offices of the college president, vice presidents, and other administrative functions and student services. Grover Cleveland Middle School in his birthplace, Caldwell, New Jersey, was named for him, as is Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, New York, and the town of Cleveland, Mississippi. Mount Cleveland, a volcano in Alaska, is also named after him.

Cleveland's portrait was on the U.S. $1000 bill of series 1928 and series 1934. He also appeared on the first few issues of the $20 Federal Reserve Notes from 1914. Since he was both the 22nd and 24th president, he was featured on two separate dollar coins released in 2012 as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005.

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Cleveland is considered by most historians to have been a successful leader, generally ranked among the upper-mid tier of American presidents. In an averaging of recent rankings Cleveland ranks 20th among all presidents. He has ranked as high as 8th in a 1948 ranking done by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., while in more recent rankings he has finished 23rd (in the C-Span 2017 survey and the Siena 2018 ranking) or 24th (in the 2018 APSA ranking.) In keeping with a recent trend in the ranking of presidents, those who have placed a higher value on civil rights have gone up in the rankings, while those, like Cleveland, who did not see this as important have gone down.