Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

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IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

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JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

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A spouse in every port

April 17, 2019

Irwin 2In the early days of television, WOR in New York had a weekday program called Million Dollar Movie—one of the first features to bring movies to TV audiences. I was reminded the other day of one of the movies I saw on that show when I was about 12 years old: The Captain’s Paradise starring Alec Guinness and Yvonne DeCarlo, the former Peggy Middleton. Guinness played a ferry captain who had two wives simultaneously, one in Gibraltar and one in Morocco.

This film came to mind when a member of a Facebook baseball group I frequent posted some 19th centuries photos and asked for help in identifying the players. I was able to name all of them, including Arthur Irwin, who was one of the more colorful characters of the 15,000-or-so men who have played major league ball.

Irwin 1Irwin—who also had his hand in about a half dozen other sports—was born in Toronto in 1858 but grew up in South Boston. He was a feisty, light-hitting shortstop and, after turns in amateur and minor league ball, he played in the bigs from 1880 to 1894. In two of those years, he was a player-manager. He was the starting shortstop for the 1884 Providence Grays of the National League; that team beat the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in what is now recognized as the first interleague national championship series.

Irwin, who was widely disliked, was frequently in the middle of baseball controversies, including an open revolt against National League owners. In 1890, Irwin was among the members of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players—the game’s first union—who bolted from the league for one season and formed their own league—popularly known as the Players’ League.

Irwin 4.jpegTracing Irwin’s career after that is enough to make a person dizzy. He managed major and minor league teams, owned a pieces of a couple of minor league franchises for a while, umpired for a year in the National League—throwing out nine players in fifty games—coached baseball at Dartmouth College and on-and-off at Penn, and in 1907 became a a scout for the New York Highlanders—forerunners of the Yankees. By 1912, most of the Highlanders roster were players whom Irwin had scouted.

One of the players Irwin coached at Penn was the future novelist Zane Grey whose first baseball book, The Short-Stop, includes a dedication to Irwin, and whose second baseball book, The Young Pitcher, features a character, Worry Arthurs, who was based on Irwin.

In 1909, George Stallings, the New York manager, rented an apartment that overlooked Hilltop Park, which was in northern Manhattan where the New York Presbyterian/Columbia medical complex is now. From that apartment, Irwin, using binoculars, stole signs from the visiting teams and used mirrors to relay the signs to the Highlanders on the field until the practice was exposed.

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FRANK CHANCE/Detroit Public Library

At the end of 1912, Frank Farrell, president of the New York club, promoted Irwin to business manager and gave him carte blanche. That led to rift between Irwin and Frank Chance, who was then managing the team, and Chance wound up resigning before his contract was done, telling The New York Times that he “did not think it was possible to assemble so many mediocre players on one club.”

After leaving the Highlanders, Irwin knocked around the minor leagues as a manager. During that period, in 1921, he was managing the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League when he noticed Lou Gehrig, then a Columbia student, playing for a semi-pro team. Irwin talked Gehrig into signing with Hartford—the first pro contract for the Iron Horse. That got Gehrig into trouble at Columbia, because he was not supposed to be playing pro ball and playing on the college team as well. He had to skip a year of play at Columbia.

Irwin 5Gehrig wasn’t the only contribution Irwin made to pro ball. In 1883, when he was playing with the Providence Grays, he broke two fingers on his left hand. So he modified a buckskin driving glove so that he could continue to play, and he wore it from then on. Prior that, only first basemen and catchers wore gloves, but Irwin’s innovation became a trend, and almost every fielder had a glove by the next season. Irwin made a deal with a manufacturer to market the glove under his name.

Irwin didn’t limit his energy to baseball. He was also president of  short-lived pro soccer league in 1884 and he was involved in one way or another in boxing, roller hockey, rugby, and marathon bike races.

He scored one of his biggest successes when he patented a mechanical football scoreboard that was adopted at fields around the country and earned him a lot of money.

In 1921, Irwin, who was ill with a serious stomach condition, left New York City for Boston aboard the steamship Calvin Austin and went overboard in what was almost certainly a suicide.

Oh, about Alec Guinness.

After Irwin died, it was revealed that he had married one woman in Boston in 1883 and another woman in Philadelphia in the 1890s. He had three children with the first wife and one with the second, and he was still married to both when he died. He almost never saw the family in Boston and provided them with almost no support.

Pitching great Waite Hoyt described Irwin as one of the most disgusting men he ever knew. But somebody liked him: He was posthumously elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because of his leading role in turning the foundering Toronto Maple Leafs into a successful franchise.

Read Eric Frost’s profile of Irwin by clicking HERE.

Read Kevin Plummer’s article about Irwin, including his role with the Maple Leafs,  by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

Huguette 1When I was growing up, there were two men in our town, identical twins who, past middle age, lived together as lifelong bachelors, dressed alike, and even walked alike—turning and stopping and starting together as though one were a hologram projection of the other.

I used to think of these men as eccentric. But now that I’m a lot older than they were then, I have come to realize that eccentric is a useless word—that I once believed that the center was wherever I was, and anyone or anything that strayed too far in any direction was off kilter, eccentric.

If I had known about Huguette Marcelle Clark back then, I would have pinned the label on her. But now that, in my dotage, I’ve read Meryl Gordon’s biography (The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark), I figure the title character had as much business claiming the center as any of us have.

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Wm. A. Clark/The New York Times

Huguette, if I may be so familiar, was the the youngest daughter of William A. Clark, a one-time U.S. Senator who made a killing via copper mining in Montana. If his name doesn’t roll off the tongue along with Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, it isn’t because he didn’t have an enormous fortune.

Huguette Clark and her elder sister, Andrée, were raised in Paris in the most sumptuous possible surroundings. In spite of her potential position in Parisian society, Huguette, even then, did not like calling attention to herself. Her shyness, and the impact of Andrée’s death at the age of 17, deepened her solitude.

Estate of Huguette Clark from EmptyMansionsBook.comHuguette married William Gower in 1928, but—perhaps not surprisingly—the bond didn’t last. After that, she devoted herself to her passion for art, which has to have been inspired in at least some way by her father, who was both a robber baron and a major art collector. This pursuit included, for 20 years, painting lessons with Tadeusz Styka, who was a prominent artist.

Styka died in 1954, and by that time Huguette had begun to withdraw from public life. It was to be a total withdrawal in which she never ventured out of her massive New York apartment. It was typical of this part of her life that after Styka died, although she was close to his wife and daughter, and was the daughter’s godmother, she never saw them again. She wrote to them, as she wrote to others she would not see; she even spoke to them by telephone. And she left a substantial part of her estate to her goddaughter, Wanda, although that was cut down to about $3.5 million in the ugly squabbling that followed Huguette’s own death.

Huguette 3For a long while, Huguette lived with and was very attached to her mother, the former Anna Eugenia La Chappelle, with whom she shared, among other things, a certain paranoia. After Anna died in 1963, Huguette never left the apartment and refused to see almost anyone, carrying this to the extreme that she would speak only through closed doors to people who did work on her behalf.

In 1991, Huguette was admitted to Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of cancerous lesions on her face. She never went home again. She decided she liked it in the hospital, and she took up residence there—later moving to Beth Israel when the two institutions merged. At one point she was paying $829 a day to for her room. She grew close to a private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri. She gave Hadassah and her family more than $30 million in cash, real estate, vehicles, and other considerations. She lavished similar gifts on others who came into her sphere.

Huguette died in 2011 when she was nearly 105 years old. The settlement of her estate was a donnybrook involving contradictory wills and a swarm of interested parties, including relatives who hadn’t seen her in decades and some who had never met her.

There’s much more to this story, and Meryl Gordon—who conducted detailed and difficult research to reconstruct these events—tells it in a way that grips the attention. I strongly recommend the book.

Eccentric? The bottom line seems to be that Huguette Clark lived the way she chose to live—collecting dolls and art, taking photographs either in her apartment or through the window, writing letters and talking on the phone, and watching The Flintstones. There is no objective evidence that she was anything but sane and grounded in reality. More power to her.

 

Louisa Adams - portrait

LOUISA JOHNSON ADAMS

A participant on Quora asked recently for “interesting facts” about John Quincy Adams—the sixth president of these United States and the son of the second president. When I last checked, none of the respondents had mentioned JQ’s wife, Louisa, who was at least as interesting as he was.

Louisa Adams’ story is raised from undeserved obscurity in a biography by namesake Louisa Thomas. Louisa Johnson was born in London in 1775, to an American father, a merchant, and a British mother to whom her father was not married. She was the first spouse-of-a-president who was not born either in the United States or in one of the original thirteen colonies. The next such spouse was Melania Trump.

Louisa Adams - JQ portrait

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Louisa’s father, Joshua, moved his family to Europe during the American Revolution, handling the affairs of his trade business from that end while a partner tended to matters in Maryland. While Louisa along with six sisters and a brother lived comfortably for a time, Joshua Johnson was eventually ruined and carted most of his brood back to the States, leaving Louisa behind, virtually penniless, in the care of Quincy Adams—at the time the American ambassador to the Netherlands. Thereafter, she would almost constantly feel the chill of an insufficiency of funds, even when she was hobnobbing in the glittering courts of Europe.

Louisa Adams.jpg

$10 gold coin commemorating Louisa Adams

Louisa and Quincy Adams met when he became a frequent visitor at her family’s home, the visits prompted by the fact that Thomas Johnson was serving as U.S. consul-general. Although his wife was English, Johnson was determined that his daughters should marry Americans, who were in relatively short supply in London. This biography includes some entertaining accounts of the emotions and machinations this situation inspired among the Johnson daughters when the unattached Quincy Adams came to call. Ultimately, John Quincy and Louisa married in 1797, and her parents beat it back to America shortly thereafter. It’s worth nothing that Adams’ parents, John and Abigail, were reluctant to bless the match because Louisa, though an American, had been reared in England.

Louisa Adams - CFA

CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS

Louisa’s life thereafter was disrupted by frequent and sometimes serious illnesses and, in addition, by several miscarriages. The couple would have four children, including the noted diplomat and writer Charles Francis Adams and a girl, Louisa Catherine, whose death in Russia when she was only a year old haunted the mother for the rest of her life.

When the elder Adams became president in 1797, he appointed Quincy ambassador to Prussia. President Adams lost the election of 1800, so Quincy and Louisa and their family relocated again, this time to Massachusetts. Quincy practiced law, which was not the love of his life, and in 1803 he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until he resigned in 1807. In 1809, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia and that was a pivotal occasion in Louisa’s life. At her husband’s insistence, she had to leave their two older sons behind in Massachusetts, and she was never reconciled to that separation.

Louisa Adams - Tsar Alexander

TSAR ALEXANDER I

Although Louisa became a favorite of Tsar Alexander I, life in St. Petersburg was a trial, not only because of the death of her daughter, but also due to the weather, her own poor health, and her struggle to keep up with the glitter of the Russian court on the limited means she had.

In 1814, President Madison appointed Adams head of a delegation to negotiate a treaty to formally end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The British wouldn’t accept Russia as a mediator, so the negotiations moved first to Ghent in Belgium and then to London. This move set the stage for the most dramatic and daring episode on Louisa Adams’ life, as her husband told her to come west with their son, but left her on her own to manage the trip.

And she did manage the trip, arranging for a carriage, driver, guard, and supplies, and traveling for forty days over frozen ground, through forests, past vagrants and bandits, among the bodies on spent battlefields, arriving intact with her little boy.

The family remained in London for two years until President James Monroe appointed Quincy Adams secretary of state. The move to Washington was a mixed bag for Louisa. She was very successful as a hostess, and she liked to poke her nose into the nasty political discourse of that period, but she also suffered from depression and physical ailments.

The family returned to Massachusetts when Quincy was not reelected, but in 1831 he became the only former president ever elected to the House of Representatives, and he served there for 17 years until he died at the Capitol building. Louisa died in Washington in 1852, and her death marked the first time both houses of Congress adjourned to acknowledge the death of a woman.

In telling this story, Louisa Thomas vividly portrays the contradictory personalities of the Adams couple.

He was a social misfit; she was a charming hostess and a skilled gossip.

“He was tender with Louisa, and she felt it,” Thomas writes at one point. “Still, there were distances between Louisa and John Quincy that were difficult to bridge. She wanted to be needed; he wanted to be alone, She could be flighty, he could be intransigent or remote. She had once called herself ‘the spoilt child of indulgence.’ He had been schooled by his parents in stoicism—although his strong feelings sometimes opened a vent, with eruptions of anger and frustration.”

Quincy Adams let on to his wife in various ways that he wanted her to know her place. For her part, she wrote, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” There were plenty of contradictions: She claimed to have no part in her husband’s career, but she listened to his speeches and gave him advice about what to cut. She resented his obsession with his responsibilities and felt useless and neglected, but when he mused that he might give up public life, she urged him not to—knowing at last, perhaps, that it was what kept his heart beating.

Louisa was smart, witty, and well-read, and she often felt that her life was pointless; she titled an autobiography “The Adventures of a Nobody.”

 

 

 

 

Abraham LincolnSome wise guy on Quora asked the other day, if Abraham Lincoln was the Emancipator and the Rail-Splitter, and Theodore Roosevelt was the Trust-Buster, what title should we give President Donald Trump.

I wasn’t about to get drawn into that kind of conversation, but I did point out to the wag that Abraham Lincoln did not want to be referred to as a rail-splitter or a grocery clerk or a riverboat pilot. The title he wanted was “lawyer,” and with good reason.

As Dan Abrams points out in this book, written with David Fisher, Lincoln tried about 2,000 civil and criminal cases. He was one of the most prominent attorneys in what was then The West, and he played an important role in the development of legal precedent in this country.

The present volume concerns the last case Lincoln tried before he was elected president. The matter before the court sitting in Springfield, Illinois in 1859, was the stabbing death, in the village of Pleasant Plains, of Greek Crafton, a young man who had studied law in Lincoln’s office. Lincoln and a former law partner, Stephen T. Logan, defended the fellow who fatally stabbed Crafton—”Peachy” Quinn Harrison, a questionable character at best.

Abraham Lincoln 2This account, while it is documentary, is presented in an engaging story-telling style that Lincoln, the old tale-spinner, would have appreciated. In a compact volume, the reader learns about the application and evolution of law in those prairie days, about the phenomenon of the circuit—judges and lawyers, more or less as a body, making the rounds among the far-flung communities of the western states, and about the focus and skill with which Lincoln studied and argued a case. Abrams and Fisher also present a study of Lincoln’s courtroom style in which he maintained an inscrutable visage and avoided histrionics.

The killing that led to this trial was the result of Greek’s perception of honor. Peachy had said something offensive about a member of the Crafton family, and Greek made it clear that he intended to have satisfaction—which, in his mind, meant pummeling Peachy. When Greek cornered Peachy in a Pleasant Plains drugstore, Greek got the worst of it. The defense built by Lincoln and Logan involved the question of whether Peachy was reasonably acting in self defense when he stabbed Greek. Another issue was whether Greek himself, on his deathbed, had exonerated Peachy of any blame for the incident.

Robert_R._Hitt

Robert Roberts Hitt

The authors tell much of this story through the eyes of Robert Roberts Hitt, who was a friend and admirer of Lincoln and an expert at shorthand. The year before this trial, Hitt had recorded the debates between Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois and it was his account that readers found in newspapers around the country. An Illinois newspaper engaged him to report the proceedings in the trial of Peachy Harrison.

Hitt, by the way, had a distinguished career when he was done with the painstaking task of taking down millions of words by hand. He served in the American embassy in Paris; he was an assistant secretary of state and a member of Congress, and he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Hitt was serving in Congress in 1892 when the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted ten years before, came up for renewal. This act prohibited immigration by any Chinese laborers, and it was the first law in the United States that shut out a specific ethnic group. Hitt unsuccessfully opposed the law (which was repealed in 1943) and his reaction has a troubling resonance in 2018:

“Never before in a free country,” Hitt said, “was there such a system of tagging a man, like a dog to be caught by the police and examined, and if his tag or collar is not all right, taken to the pound or drowned and shot. Never before was it applied by a free people to a human being, with the exception (which we can never refer to with pride) of the sad days of slavery. …”

 

 

 

 

whiffenpoofs 1

whiffenpoofs.com

A friend told me during a party the other day that when he moved to Garden City, New York, many years ago, he inquired about joining the choir in the local Catholic Church and discovered that it was an all-male ensemble.

Beside the fact that this expression of machismo denied women a role in this particular ministry of the Church, the policy was diminishing the force as older members who moved, retired, or partook in eternal Glory, were not being replaced by new voices.

For a while, anyone who raised the prospect of inviting a wife or sister or daughter was shouted down, and my friend, as a newcomer, remained aloof from this controversy. Eventually however, after he got his sea legs, he spoke up for equity, to say nothing of survival, and the choir finally welcomed the women.

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The Whiffenpoofs of 1912, in ballet costume, with Louis Linder.

The process may have been different—although I have read that there was an ugly and abortive attempt in the 1980s—but a well-known singing aggregation has more recently taken a similar leap into the modern world. Well, yes, they will serenade their Louie, at least in spirit, but their song will have a new dimension—a female voice.

I refer to the Whiffenpoofs, the a cappella group composed of Yale University seniors that, for the first time in its 109-year-history, has admitted a female singer to its ranks. She is Sofia Campóamor, who sings soprano in another Yale ensemble but has a vocal range that equips her to sing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs, beginning in the next academic year. You can hear her singing “Say So,” one of her own compositions—and buy it if you like it—by clicking HERE.

Whiffenpoofs 4 linder

Louis Linder

In a parallel development, Whim ‘n Rhythm, an all-female a cappella group at the university, has decided to admit singers regardless of gender, based on their vocal range. So Whim ‘n Rhythmn will run out the sopranos and altos, and the Whiffenpoofs will present tenors, baritones, and basses.

The Whiffenpoofs, the oldest and best-known of Yale’s several a cappella groups, close their concerts with their namesake song, the one that begins, “To the tables down at Mory’s, / to the place where Louie dwells, / to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well,” and later promises, “We will serenade our Louie / while voice and song shall last, / then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.” It’s a pessimistic sentiment, so it’s just as well that the Whiffenpoofs don’t take it seriously. You can get an idea of their treatment of the song by clicking HERE.

Whiffenpoofs 3 Rudy Vallee

Rudy Vallèe

The song was published as sheet music in 1909. The chorus was taken almost verbatim from Runyard Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen Rankers.” The poem was set to music by Guy H. Scull and adapted for Whiffenpoof purposes by with lyrics by Meade Minnigerode and George Pomeroy. Rudy Vallèe—with whom the song was widely associated—made a hit recording in 1937 and Bing Crosby did the same in 1947. It has been recorded by a host of others, a widely diverse group that includes Elvis Presley, Count Basie, Perry Como, and the Statler Brothers.

“Louie” refers to Louis Linder, a German immigrant who, in the late 19th century, bought what was then already a hallowed old restaurant that catered to Yale undergraduates. Eventually, the place was acquired by a non-profit organization founded by Yale alumni, and its furniture and other appointments were moved to a new location. The institution, Mory’s Temple Bar, which has experienced and recovered from hard times, is now a membership club where the Whiffenpoofs regularly hold forth.

 

 

 

 

 

Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

Grant 3 - Julia

Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

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Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

If the face of Elizabeth Jennings Graham ever appears on a U.S. dollar coin, part of the credit will go to Chester A. Arthur, the reluctant 21st president.

Arthur, as I recounted in a recent post, was a product of the New York Republican machine of the late 19th century. He was a successful candidate for vice president in 1880 only because the party needed an easterner to balance the ticket led by James A. Garfield of Ohio.

When Garfield was murdered and Arthur was vaulted into the presidency, no one was more shocked than Arthur himself. Although he was a decent man despite his connection  to the GOP machine, he wasn’t Mr. Ambition, and he did not have his sites set on the presidency.

Chester A. Arthur 2

Chester A. Arthur

He surprised many people, and at times dismayed his own party, by being not only a serious chief executive but something of a reformer—the most notable example being his successful call for a civil service system in which merit and not political connection determined who got public jobs.

Although he finishes low in the perennial polls that rank the presidents, he had some admirable qualities, and none more admirable than his unswerving opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and his belief that black citizens should be afforded the same rights as white citizens—and that’s where Elizabeth Jennings Graham comes in.

Elizabeth Jennings was born in New York City in March 1830. Her father, Thomas, was a free black American, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been born in slavery and was an indentured servant during the period in which the State of New York gradually abolished human bondage. Thomas—a tailor and the first known black American to hold a patent in the United States (for a dry-cleaning process) was prosperous enough to buy his wife’s freedom.

Thomas Jennings

Thomas Jennings

Both parents were prominent members of the black community. The elder Elizabeth Jennings was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, an organization established by black women who wanted to encourage self-improvement for black females. In 1834, she delivered an address, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds,” in which she stressed that black Americans must cultivate their minds if they did not want to remain subordinate to white people.

The younger Elizabeth Jennings was her mother’s daughter. She was well educated, and she became a teacher at the private African Free School, and then in the public schools, and a church organist. She was also a forerunner of Rosa Parks.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings was rushing to play the organ at the First Colored Congregational Church. At the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, in her haste, she boarded a segregated horse-drawn streetcar operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The New York Tribune reported what happened next:

NYC streetcar

A New York City streetcar in the 19th century

The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.

Elizabeth Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was handled by the junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who was 24 years old.

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Arthur was successful. The three-day trial ended in Jennings’ favor: Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court said, in his charge to the jury, that “colored persons” who were sober, orderly, and free of disease, had the same rights as anyone else and, therefore, the company could not bar black people from its conveyances.

The jury also awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250, which was a substantial amount of money in 1855. The day after the trial concluded, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its streetcars desegregated. In 1895, after the death of her husband, Charles Graham, Jennings, who had lived for a time in New Jersey, returned to Manhattan and established at her West 42nd Street home a kindergarten for black children; she operated it until her death in 1901.

Rev Pennington

Rev. James Pennington

Only a month after the Jennings trial, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington who, with Thomas Jennings, was active in a campaign to end discrimination on transit facilities—was prevented from boarding a whites-only car operated by the Eighth Avenue Railroad Company. Pennington also took legal action and won a judgment on appeal to the State Supreme Court. In 1865, New York’s public transportation system was finally fully desegregated—the culmination of a movement in which Chester A. Arthur had played a critical role.

 

Chester_A_Arthur-1

When someone—Donald Trump, for example—assumes the presidency of the United States, he knows from the first day that eventually he will be compared to all those who held the office before.

When the history professors and other analysts cast their periodical votes, the new president, in most cases, can hope to rank higher than, say, 34th of 45 places. That’s the place now occupied, in one prominent poll, by Chester Alan Arthur, subject of a biography by Zachary Karabell.

To rank below Arthur, one has to have had a name such as Tyler, Harding, Pierce, or Buchanan.

But Karabell’s biography, one of The American Presidents Series by Times Books, shows that even in his lowly niche, Arthur deserves credit from some unexpected effectiveness in office. Without intending to, Karabell’s book also portends—if the events of the past seven months are any indication—that Arthur stands to move up at least a notch.

U.S. Presidential Portraits

Arthur and Trump have this in common: They went to the White House from New York City where each, in his own way, took as much personal advantage as possible of the prevailing system—real estate for Trump, political cronyism for Arthur.

A native of Vermont, Arthur had a reputation for being, if not lazy, not energetic either. He arrived late and left early. When he could choose how he spent his time, his choice was usually an evening at the club with his cronies, whisky, and cigars. But he was efficient and even effective at what he did, and he was successful in the practice of law in New York City.

Arthur also signed on with the Republican machine which at the time was run by U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur’s association with the party paid off, and in 1871 President Ulysses Grant appointed  him collector of the Port of New York.

Chester A. Arthur 4

Roscoe Conkling

The post was both powerful and lucrative, although Karabell points out that Arthur never took money that he was not legally entitled to. He was consistent in this respect: during the Civil War, he had been appointed brigadier general and was put in charge of arranging housing and other accommodations for troops arriving in the city to serve in the New York militia. “Arthur did not take advantage of the numerous opportunities for skimming,” Karabell writes, “and his gains were not ill-gotten.”

In 1880, the Republican Party was unable to break a convention deadlock between Conkling’s “Stalwart” faction, which wanted to nominate Grant, and the “Half-Breed” faction that wanted to nominate U.S. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.

Chester A. Arthur 5

James A. Garfield

The convention finally compromised on U.S. Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was a “westerner” and was not aligned with either faction; in order to guarantee the support of the New York Republicans, the party sought to balance the ticket by nominating Arthur, who by then was a widower, for vice president. Folks who were familiar with the amiable, efficient, but unexceptional Arthur reacted with emotions that ranged from shock to mirth.

In the event, Karabell reports, Arthur’s hail-fellow skills were instrumental in the election of Garfield:

“From his baronial suite in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Arthur worked tirelessly on behalf of Garfield, levying assessments, raising money from donors, handling correspondence, wheedling and cajoling, wining and dining, getting speeches printed and distributed, organizing events and, of course, collecting and doling out campaign funds.”

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James G. Blaine

It was a dirty campaign but, although Arthur was clearly in the Stalwart camp, he was so downright nice that few held that or anything else against him.

“His ego,” Karabell writes, “unlike Conkling’s and Blaine’s, did not walk into a room before he did, and few people felt strongly enough about him to hate him. He was the Teflon candidate of his day. …”

The election of Arthur as vice president might not have mattered in the long run had it not been for Charles Guiteau—a man with a tentative grip on reality—who shot Garfield in July 1881. Garfield died two months later, and Chester was sworn in as president on September 20.

Few people, including Arthur, considered him a good fit for the presidency, but when

Chester A. Arthur 7

Charles Guiteau

two months had passed between the shooting and Garfield’s death, the country was prepared to make the best of it. In some ways, the country got more than it expected.

For one thing, when Arthur took office there was already an investigation of a scandal in which federal officials had been grossly overpaying contractors for operating postal routes. Although he was the willing product of spoils-system politics, Arthur and his Justice Department played hardball with the offenders. Arthur forced some public officials to resign and fired others. Although those tried in the scandal were not convicted, Arthur’s administration had removed the cancer.

In another ironic move, considering Arthur’s background, he took the occasion of his first “state of the Union” message to call for civil service reform—namely, a system in which civil servants were employed based on merit, not on their political connections or on graft. In 1882, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and Arthur, the one-time political hack, signed it and acted quickly to put it into practice, launching an historic sea change in the way public jobs were filled.

Chester A. Arthur 8Immigration was a hot topic in the 1880s, and one on which Congress and the President, for the most part, could work together. They butted heads, however, over a bill designed to cut off immigration from China for twenty years and deny citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. The bill was unpopular in the East but not in the West where Chinese laborers, who had been allowed to enter the United States without restrictions, had long been a welcome source of hard labor. But in a development that should sound familiar in our own time, an economic downturn turned the tide opinion against the Chinese, who were accused of taking jobs that should have been available to Americans.

In response to this trend, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Arthur shocked his own party by vetoing it. He didn’t like the ban on citizenship, and he believed that the 20-year moratorium on immigration would violate a treaty with China. But when Congress passed a new bill that reduced the moratorium to ten years, Arthur knew there would be enough votes to override another veto, so he signed the bill.

Chester A. Arthur 9An important aspect of Arthur’s life was his unwavering opposition to slavery—a point of view he no doubt inherited from his father, who was an abolitionist preacher. Arthur did not adopt the comfortable position of many other northerners who said they were opposed to slavery in principle, didn’t want slavery in their own states, but were content to let it endure in the South where the citizens felt otherwise. No, Arthur was dead against it anywhere, including in the West.

When Arthur was president, Reconstruction had pretty much collapsed and the government was not vigorously enforcing the rights of black Americans. When the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which claimed “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights,” including the right to equal access to public accommodations and public transportation and the right to serve on juries, Arthur tried, though unsuccessfully, to prod Congress into adopting a new measure.

Arthur was not nominated to run for reelection in 1884. He returned to his law practice in New York but was not well enough to devote much energy to the firm. He died in 1886 at the age of 57 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Arthur is largely forgotten among the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts, but he probably deserves at least a little better. His career was not without its achievements—civil service reform being a major one that benefitted generations of men and women. And he was a decent human being in an environment of cut-throat politics—a characteristic not to be lightly brushed aside. “In everything he did,” Karabell writes, “Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman, and that is rare and precious.”

Isn’t it, though?

Dickie, Don, and Andy

July 28, 2017

Impeach 1

Andrew Johnson shortly before his death in 1869.

A former colleague of mine used to say that I could work Enos Slaughter, Harpo Marx, or Andrew Johnson into any conversation.

He might have been right, but where Johnson is concerned, I didn’t need any help to work him into the general discourse about the presidency of Donald Trump. Others did it for me by invoking the impeachment of Andrew Johnson as a precursor to what—in theory, at least—could be in store for the 45th president of the United States.

That was understandable. Once impeachment was added to the discussion, there were only three precedents to turn to—the cases of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. The impeachments of Johnson and Clinton and the likelihood that Nixon would have been impeached had he not resigned all arose from circumstances that were particular to the behavior of those three men. In Johnson’s case, the circumstances were also particular to that time in history—the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. There is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between those three cases and that of Donald Trump.

Impeachment 2

Richard Nixon

There are parallels, though, limited as they might be. The myriad authorities—the former directors of this and the professors of that—who help TV faces torture and dissect the matter virtually around the clock—have frequently recalled Nixon’s dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as the sort of  decision that Trump might take regarding the investigation of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. And the authorities have speculated that such a decision on Trump’s part—with respect to special prosecutor Robert Mueller II, for example—would lead to the same sort of disaster that befell Nixon.

There is also this parallel—in this case concerning, if you’ll forgive me, Andrew Johnson. This has to do with the arms-length dust-up between Trump and his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions. Johnson also had a falling out with a member of his cabinet—the able secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, who had served in that capacity under Abraham Lincoln and as attorney-general under James Buchanan.

Johnson, although an admirable man in many respects, was famously the wrong person to succeed Lincoln at such a contentious and sensitive time in the nation’s history. There were several reasons for that, and one of them was that he was incapable of compromise. He and a Congress that was dominated by the Republican Party disagreed fundamentally about how the federal government should proceed with the defeated Confederate states and with the millions of black men and women who had been freed from lives of slavery.

Impeachment 3

Edwin M. Stanton

The short-hand version of this dispute is that the Republicans—led by the so-called Radical wing—wanted to put the southern states through a process of re-admission to the Union—including a period of military government—and extend to black Americans the same right to vote enjoyed by white Americans. Johnson, a southern Democrat who had stuck with the Union to the point of risking his life—wanted to restore the southern state governments with relatively little to-do, and he did not want to give the vote or much of anything else to the former slaves. Besides the obvious disagreements, there was an underlying difference with respect to the prerogatives the states and the prerogatives of the federal government—or the “general government,” as it was sometimes called in those days.

Included in the thrusts and parries of this contest was the Tenure of Office Act, a law passed by Congress, over Johnson’s veto, restricting the president’s power to remove from office, without the consent of the Senate, any federal officer the president had appointed with the consent of the Senate. That would include cabinet officers, of course, and it was designed to protect Stanton, who not only supported the whole Radical program but worked against the president’s agenda. This was a wry turn of events, because one of the bona fides Johnson could lay claim to was that he had retained Lincoln’s whole cabinet, even though Johnson was a conservative Democrat. In fact, he and others believed that he could not have violated the Tenure of Office Act by removing an officer he had not appointed in the first place.

Impeachment 4

Ulysses S. Grant

The law was in place, however, and it specifically provided that if the president suspended an officer while the Senate was not in session, the Senate, when it reconvened, could reinstate the rascal, and the president would have to keep him on. That provision meant a lot more then than it does now, because in the mid 19th century, Congress was not in session for most of the year.

Eventually, Johnson had enough of Stanton; while the Senate was in recess in August 1867, Johnson suspended Stanton and told him to turn the office over to Ulysses S. Grant—who not only opposed the suspension but disagreed with Johnson’s policies regarding reconstruction of the South. When the Senate returned in January, it did not uphold the suspension. Johnson believed, correctly, that the law was unconstitutional, and he decided to force the question in the courts. He removed Stanton and appointed in his place the comic-opera Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas who was not up to the fight when Stanton refused to leave office. When Johnson was impeached in February 1868, the charges against him boiled down to his violation of the Tenure of Office Act and his public challenges to the legitimacy of what he had referred to as a “rump Congress”—meaning that it represented only part of the country.

Johnson was acquitted by one vote, although some historians have maintained that several more Senators were prepared to vote for acquittal if there was a chance of conviction. Being partisan politicians, they weren’t about to climb out on that limb if it were not necessary.

The charges against Johnson regarding the dismissal of Stanton were flimsy, and the charges related to his public speeches were absurd. But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, which is why—whenever the possibility of impeachment arises—the question of what constitutes an impeachable offense is argued anew. Gerald Ford once observed that grounds for impeachment are whatever Congress says they are; that’s true on a certain level, but the republic can’t stand if Congress can remove a president for expressing his opinion, much less for the color of his ties.

Many wished for the conviction of Andrew Johnson, but they might unwittingly have been wishing too for a serious jolt to the balance of powers intended by the founders.