Outside of a few critical biographies, we celebrate them as almost as if they were flawless marble figures, but our presidents were not just human, but all too human. Some of the following stories would be fascinating if they were about anyone, but some are just so because they are about a future or acting president.
Here’s a paragraph from the journal of a famous American woodsman, a Major in the army, on a disastrous adventure on a rapid ice filled river that sounds like it could have been a first draft of The Last of the Mohicans:
There was no Way for getting over but on a Raft, which we set about, with but one poor Hatchet, and got finished just after Sun-setting, after a whole Days Work; we got it launched, and on Board of it, and set off; but before we were Half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every Moment our Raft to sink, and ourselves to perish ; I put out my setting Pole to try to stop the Raft, that the Ice might pass by, when the Rapidity of the Stream threw it with so much Violence against the Pole, that it jirked me out into ten Feet Water, but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the Raft Logs; notwithstanding all our Efforts we could not get the Raft to either Shore, but were obliged, as we were near an Island, to quit our Raft and make to it.
The Major had a traveling companion named Christopher Gist, who wrote (badly) in his own journal:
The Major desired to encamp, to which the Indian asked to carry his gun. But he refused that, and then the Indian grew churlish, and pressed us to keep on, telling us that there were Ottawa Indians in these woods, and they would scalp us if we lay out; but to go to his cabin, and we should be safe. I thought very ill of the fellow, but did not care to let the Major know I mistrusted him. But he soon mistrusted him as much as I. He said he could hear a gun to his cabin, and steered us more northwardly. We grew uneasy, and then he said two whoops might be heard to his cabin. We went two miles further; then the Major said he would stay at the next water, and we desired the Indian to stop at the next water. But before we came to water, we came to a clear meadow; it was very light, and snow on the ground. The Indian made a stop, turned about; the Major saw him point his gun toward us and fire. Said the Major, “Are you shot?” “No,” said I. Upon which the Indian ran forward to a big standing white oak, and to loading his gun; but we were soon with him. I would have killed him; but the Major would not suffer me to kill him.
The Major was 21 year old George Washington, the year 1753, the onset of the French and Indian War in which Washington was heavily involved, particularly at the beginning. The first item I quoted is from his own journals, which was later published, making him famous as a young man.
How different would life have been if the Indian had been more accurate? No Washington - who would have filled his place in the war? The ambitious, perfidious and careless General Gates? And as the all important first president? Franklin didn't live long enough and there was no one else acceptable to everyone who was above the partisan warfare then brewing. In fact, if no Washington, we probably would not know who his protege, Alexander Hamilton, was either and their would have been no political counter-balance to Jefferson. But, perhaps there would have been no independence at all, and no first president?
Washington had a good start in life. Rich, educated, family, etc. Not every president had one like it. But, one in particular had a very good start and thought he was shortchanged:
When I recollect that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them and become as worthless to society as they were.
That was Thomas Jefferson (my special historical nemesis) writing to a grandson in his later years. Poor, poor Tom. Fourteen years old (nearly full grown by the standards of the day) when his father died, richer as an infant heir than all but a few grown Americans, owner of thousands of acres he lifted not a finger to deserve and surrounded by slaves to leap at his every desire. Must have been tough. But, not so fast. He was hardly without a relative or friend to guide him. His mother lived almost two decades after his father died. The ungrateful brat lived at home a couple of more years with her and then went to school nearby; he just dismissed her as unimportant. He had eight living brothers and sisters. He could not have had better connections in Virginia than the Randolph family on his mother's side. He got a first rate, one would say, remarkable education. Is it any wonder I give this prima donna such a hard time? By the way, Washington's father died when he was only eleven, Thomas, so man up.
Apparently, sometimes the best thing a future president could do is shut up. Here are a few words of advice concerning a potential presidential candidate which could be well applied to modern candidates or Supreme Court nominees:
Let him not say one single word about his principles, or his creed – let him say nothing – promise nothing. Let no Committee or Convention – no town meeting ever extract from him a single word, about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter. Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.
This was the suggestion of powerful banker, Nicholas Biddle, probably a more important historical figure than the future president he was discussing, William Henry Harrison. Actually, the time Harrison should have been quiet and said nothing was during his own overly long inaugural address in inclement weather, as he caught cold and soon died of pneumonia. Or was murdered, as some have claimed. Some claimed it was really the Jesuits (but also the Masons and the Illuminati) - any Jesuit trained reader want to defend that?
I love this little tirade by a very young New York congressman who confronts a Tammany Hall enforcer in Albany planning on humiliating the brash newcomer by a good old fashioned blanket tossing:
By God! McManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you – you’d better leave me alone.
It's more interesting when you know the congressman was Teddy Roosevelt. That was reported by a New York Times correspondent and repeated in Nathan Miller's biography. Apparently, TR didn't have much of a sense of humor about such things. But, boys will be boys. Here’s a description of a less feisty president from his early days:
Sometimes, he would get into fights-just ordinary scuffling and wrestling matches. In the memory of friends, he always lost—he was physically quite uncoordinated; “he threw a baseball like a girl,” one classmate says—and as soon as he started losing, he would run home crying, a tall, skinny, awkward, teen-aged boy with dusty cheeks and tears sliding down them, running through the streets of that quiet little town sobbing loudly.
Not the best of starts for LBJ. But, there’s a lot worse. That was from Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, first of three (so far) incredibly well researched volumes on LBJ. Caro gives non-stop descriptions of Johnson’s seemingly unparalleled lack of character and obsessive ambition, includes the following comments from his college mates:
"'Master of Bullshit' – that’s what M.B. means,” says one of Lyndon Johnson’s classmates, Henry Kyle. “He was known as the biggest liar on the campus. In private, when there were no girls around, we called him ‘Bullshit’ Johnson.”
He was given the nickname “Bull.”
“When you saw him, that’s what you called him,” says Horace Richards. “ ‘Hiya, Bull.’ ‘Howya doin’, bull?’ Bull Johnson was his name, as far as we were concerned.”
“That was what we called him to his face,” Edwards Puls, another classmate, says. “That was what he called generally called. Because of this constant braggadocio. Because he was so full of bullshit, manure, that people just didn’t believe him. Because he was a man who just could not tell the truth.”
Caro goes on to document Johnson’s allergy to the truth, which he never outgrew. I tend to read biographies very cynically, looking for sloppy research or unsupported conclusions. But, never have I had an opinion of a politician or historical character change so much as I have of Johnson after reading Caro's phenomenally well researched work. He spends much time detailing Johnson’s vast political skills, drive, charisma, sense of humor, intelligence and occasional good works, but no doubt the non-stop dishonesty, excessive ambition, bullying, moral depravity and criminal behavior dominates the story. I would go so far as to say that although I have never believed any of the conspiracy theories about JFK’s murder, and still don’t (relax), I would no longer have a problem believing that Johnson would have at least looked the other way if he had known.
Sometimes people just don’t see the promise in our future presidents at all. Here’s one noted diplomat speaking on his feelings about a visit from the son of a powerful man on tour during war-time:
We were furious. [His father] was not exactly known as a friend of the career service, and many of us, from what we had heard about him, cordially reciprocated this lack of enthusiasm. His son had no official status and was, in our eyes, obviously an upstart and an ignoramus. The idea that there was anything he could learn or report about conditions in Europe which we did not already know and had not already reported seemed (and not without reason) wholly absurd. That busy people should have their time taken up by arranging his tour struck us as outrageous. With that polite but weary punctiliousness that characterizes diplomatic officials required to busy themselves with pesky compatriots who insist on visiting places where they have no business to be, I arranged to get him through German lines, had him escorted to Prague, saw to it that he was shown what he wanted to see, expedited his departure, then, with a feeling of ‘that’s that,’ washed my hands of him – as I thought.
The writer was George Kennan, possibly America's most celebrated diplomat since Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. The "upstart" and "ignoramus" he was referring to was JFK. Hindsight is 20-20 as the following quote from Kennan shows:
Had anyone said to me then that the young man in question would some day be the President of the United States and that I, in the capacity of chief of a diplomatic mission, would be his humble and admiring servant, I would have thought that either my informant or I had taken leave of our senses.
Even in office, presidents are still just people. Here’s a president who was sure the White House was haunted (and he wasn't alone):
Just two months ago today, I was a reasonably happy and contented Vice President. Maybe you can remember that far back too. But things have changed so much it hardly seems real.
I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin. Or James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce deciding which was the more useless to the country. And when Milliard Fillmore and Chester Arthur join in for place and show the din is almost unbearable.
That was Harry Truman writing to his beloved Bess in 1945. He was having some fun with it, but he was also serious. Here’s another excerpt from a letter written the next year:
Night before last I went to bed at nine o’clock after shutting my doors. At four o’clock I was awakened by three distinct knocks on my bedroom door. I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked into your room and Margie’s. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped up and looked and no one there! Damn place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.
Truman didn’t mention Lincoln’s ghost, but that is the one that is most often allegedly seen, felt or interacted with at the White House, including by Grace Coolidge (the first of many), Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Wilhemina of The Netherlands (she fainted), Winston Churchill (caught naked by the ghost during WWII, he claims to have said, “Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage”), Reagan’s daughter Maureen (and her husband), Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg and Lyndon Johnson (whose supposed spectral visit really seems to just be a joke to me). Many other staff members and guests, as well.
Lincoln himself does not report a visit from a ghost, but had several eerie dreams during his life. According to a friend of his, shortly before he was killed he reportedly said:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
It always amazes me as to how many of our revered forefather’s of the first and second generations engaged in duels, and not just Hamilton and Burr. Here’s an excellent description of one such fight to the death.
At seven o’clock on the morning of Friday, May 30, 1806, on the Red River in Logan County, Kentucky, Jackson and Dickinson faced each other at twenty-four feet. Jackson let Dickinson shoot first, and he hit Jackson in the chest with a bullet. Though wounded, Jackson coolly leveled his own pistol at his opponent, and fired. The trigger caught halfway; Jackson cocked the gun again and fired, killing Dickinson. Only later, as his boot filled with blood after he had left the dueling ground, did the extent of Jackson’s wound become clear. He carried Dickinson’s bullet in his body until he died. Even in pain—the wound complicated his health for decades—Jackson never let his mask drop. “If he had shot me through the brain, sir,” Jackson told a friend, “I should still have killed him.”
That's from John Meachem’s recent American Lion. Here’s yet another Jackson gun fight, this one far more exciting, from Marquis James' much earlier Jackson biography. This time Jackson has it out with future Senator and, ironically, Jackson supporter, Thomas Benton:
As they reached the hotel Jesse Benton stepped into the barroom. Thomas Benton was standing in the doorway of the hall that led to the rear porch overlooking the river. Jackson started toward him brandishing his whip. "Now, defend yourself you damned rascal!" Benton reached for a pistol but before he could draw Jackson's gun was at his breast. He backed slowly through the corridor, Jackson following, step for step. They had reached the porch, when, glancing beyond the muzzle of Jackson's pistol, Benton saw his brother slip through a doorway behind Jackson, raise his pistol and shoot. Jackson pitched forward, firing. His powder burned a sleeve of Tom Benton's coat. Thomas Benton fired twice at the falling form of Jackson and Jesse lunged forward to shoot again, but James Sitler, a bystander, shielded the prostrate man whose left side was gushing blood.
The gigantic form of John Coffee strode through the smoke, firing over the heads of Sitler and Jackson at Thomas Benton. He missed but came on with clubbed pistol. Benton's guns were empty. He fell backward down a flight of stairs. Young Stockley Hays, of Burr expedition memory, sprang at Jesse Benton with a sword cane and would have run him through had the blade not broken on a button. Jesse had a loaded pistol left. As Hays closed in with a dirk knife, Benton thrust the muzzle against his body, but the charge failed to explode.
General Jackson's wounds soaked two mattresses with blood at the Nashville Inn. He was nearly dead - his left shoulder shattered by a slug, and a ball embedded against the upper bone of that arm, both from Jesse Benton's pistol. While every physician in Nashville tried to stanch the flow of blood, Colonel Benton and his partizans gathered before the Inn shouting defiance. Benton broke a small-sword of Jackson's that he had found at the scene of conflict. All the doctors save one declared for the amputation of the arm. Jackson barely understood. "I'll keep my arm," he said.
I never thought much of Andrew Jackson, but he was astonishingly tough. He was the first president to be attacked by an assassin, in his case an insane out of work house painter who fired at him with two guns. Fortunately, some might say providentially, both guns misfired. Jackson, who suffered from numerous ailments and pains, attacked him with a cane, his own friends probably saving the assailant’s life.
Just to balance it a little, not every president felt the same about dueling, of course. Here is one honest and humble response from a guy just as tough, but with the courage to paint himself in less than heroic light:
I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him. I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done. I place my opposition to dueling on higher grounds than any here stated. No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline.”
That was Ulysses Grant, from his celebrated (I would say over-celebrated) memoirs. But, if you don't like Grant, there may be something wrong with you (die hard Confederates probably excepted).
I have a feeling I'll be back on this topic.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .