Happy 220th birthday, Millard Fillmore!

January 7, 2020

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use.

Millard Fillmore, bronzed, sitting at the corner of 9th and St. Joseph Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota. He still gets around. Photo by Ed Darrell. Please use. Creative Commons copyright.

Millard Fillmore, our 13th President, was born on January 7, 1800.

That was 24 days after the death of our first President, George Washington.

Fillmore’s birthday isn’t such a big deal anymore, since fun organizers discontinued the bathtub races once word got out that the story of Millard Fillmore putting the first bathtub in the White House, is a hoax.

Historians from the University of Buffalo — an institution founded by Fillmore after his presidency — usually hold a graveside ceremony with speeches. In 2020 the service was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. EST, at Fillmore’s grave. No news I can find about whether it occurred. The ceremony has been cancelled for snow, ice and cold in recent years. (About as cold as the response I get from the University of Buffalo when I ask for a copy of the speech or paper to publish here.)

It’s a shame, really. Fillmore is the victim of fake news, a hoax perpetrated by H. L. Mencken 100 years ago, in 1917. Mencken claimed, falsely, that Fillmore’s sole good, memorable deed was putting that fictitious bathtub in the White House. That story crowds out the real history, and any good Fillmore should be remembered for.

Fillmore did a few notable things as president.

  • Fillmore secured a steady supply of bird guano for the United States. Funny as that may be, the guano was essential for making gun powder, which in turn helped fuel the military might of the United States for years (including through the Civil War).
  • Millard Fillmore and his first wife, Abigail, read books all the time. Deprived of the opportunity of going to school much in his youth, Fillmore became an ardent reader, read for the law, became a lawyer, got into politics and was selected Vice President for President Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died (probably of typhoid) in 1850, Fillmore succeeded to the presidency. In the White House, the Fillmores found few books to read, and so established the White House Library. Say prayers that library survives the current president.
  • Fillmore thought globally, and he could see world trade as a huge opportunity for a young nation with a strong navy and army, and a lot of resources including intellectual capacity to manufacture things. Trade in the Pacific was problematic, and a large number of problems stemmed from Japan’s closing itself off from the world. Japan had coal, which could refuel steamships. Japan instead closed its ports. An occasional U.S. sailor would be executed if he washed up on Japanese shores. Fillmore sent a small fleet of “black ships” under Commodore Matthew Perry, to tell Japan it was time to open up to trade and assume its place among nations. Perry was successful, after a second visit and a small round of cannon fire. Japan became a strong economic power in the West Pacific, and in its march to glory decided to take over resources of several other Asian nations. We might say Fillmore started the slide to World War II in the Pacific.

History should be kept to accuracy. Mencken upset the ship of accuracy with his essay, and America has not recovered, nor has Millard Fillmore’s reputation. There’s a moral there: Don’t spread hoaxes; seek the truth, and glorify it. (Mencken apologized for the hoax, but too late.)

Rapid City, South Dakota, is a booming town. Mineral wealth and oil in the state combine with a nearby Air Force Base, great housing prices and good weather to benefit the town. One of its civic watchdogs got the idea of putting statues of all U.S. presidents on downtown corners. That is how Millard Fillmore comes to be seated with a book to read, at the corner of 9th Street and St. Joseph Street, where I met him in August 2017. Altogether a fun little history enterprise for Rapid City, very well executed, and worthy of a stop there if you’re passing by.

Perhaps someday Rapid City will take to decorating the statues on the birthdays of the men (so far!) represented. I hope they won’t be frozen out like Buffalo, New York, is, if they commemorate Millard Fillmore’s birthday.

We can reflect on happier times, when even our disrespected and forgotten presidents were good people who did great things.

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017

Millard Fillmore and Ed Darrell meet, in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 2017; photo by Kathryn Knowles

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Nate White’s stunning answer to the question: Why do many British people not like Donald Trump?

June 24, 2019

It was a question asked on Quora last February 12: Why do many British people not like Donald Trump?

Nate White is a London-based copy writer — that is, advertising guy. His Quora profile says, “Drinks coffee. Writes copy.” Nate took a swing at answering the question, and knocked that ball into orbit.

The 90 year-old Queen is forced to go around our idiot President,
who doesn’t even know how to walk properly.” (The Wow Report)

Sadly, for some reason the thread has been deleted from Quora (threats from Trump’s side?) Several people were inspired to preserve it on blogs and in other forms. Ronald Lebow (@RonaldLebow) posted the piece in a series of Tweets, a thread, recently, and I finally found the entire piece from which I had seen only parts quoted before.

Here is Nate White’s answer to the question, “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump.” It’s written so well, so strongly, that I wonder whether an intelligent rebuttal could ever be done.

A few things spring to mind…

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll.

And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think

‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’

is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.

You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form;

He is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit.

His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?’

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

Nate White, answering a question on Quora
Brits fly a Trump Baby balloon over London which makes the POTUS “feel unwelcome.”
(Photo, YouTube; T/Y Michaelam via The Wow Report)

Quora offers no explanation for why the question was taken down from its forums. I’ve found nothing to suggest Mr. White had pangs of remorse. If you have more details, please let us know, in comments.


April 4, 1841: William Henry Harrison became first President to die in office

April 4, 2019

William Henry Harrison died on April 4, 1841, 31 days after his inauguration as president of the United States.

Perhaps during the cold and rainy inauguration in which Harrison delivered the longest speech in inauguration history, perhaps from a well-wisher, Harrison caught a cold. The cold developed into pneumonia. Perhaps the pneumonia killed him.

Or, perhaps he caught typhoid fever from the notoriously bad water at the White House in 1841. Modern historians and medical specialists suspect Harrison had some form of typhoid, and not pneumonia from a cold. It’s likely his physicians at the time did everything just wrong to treat typhoid, much as George Washington’s physicians probably killed him 42 years earlier.

Harrison may have been the first president photographed, with a portrait taken in 1841, about four years after photography was invented. But the photo didn’t survive, and Harrison didn’t live for another sitting. Oil paintings and engravings are what we have of Harrison. Caption from Smithsonian: William Henry Harrison / Albert Gallatin Hoit / Oil on canvas, 1840 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Any way it went down, Vice President John Tyler succeeded to fill 47 months of Harrison’s 48-month term.

Harrison, a Whig, was the first president to die in office. His vice president, John Tyler, was a converted Democrat who quickly abandoned the Whig platform as president.

Harrison won fame pushing Indians off of lands coveted by white settlers in the Northwest Territories. Harrison defeated Tecumseh’s Shawnee tribe (without Tecumseh) at the Battle of Tippecanoe, then beat Tecumseh in a battle with the English in which Tecumseh died, in the War of 1812.

Schoolchildren of my era learned Harrison’s election slogan: “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too!” Schoolchildren should learn that slogan today, too, as a touchstone to 19th century history and presidential politics. Some say it was the first slogan used by a candidate for president. See Mo Rocca’s piece for CBS Sunday Morning.

On Harrison’s death, Tyler found himself in uncharted territories. While the Constitution and the title suggested a vice president would fill in for a president when the president was absent, the Constitution did not explicitly say the vice president would succeed to the presidency if the president should die. There was some controversy at the time, about whether Tyler should act as caretaker until a new, special election was called.

Tyler took the oath of office as president, effectively putting the controversy to bed. No one sued to stop him. Tyler established the precedent of peaceful and quick transition of power to the vice president, upon the death of a president

Congress voted Harrison’s widow a one-time payment of $25,000, since he had died nearly penniless. This may be the first example of a president or his survivors getting a payment from the government after leaving office. It’s a precedent Congress didn’t quite follow through on, and presidents left office without pensions for many more years, a story told with pain about the later years and death of President U. S. Grant.

In the annals of brief presidencies, there is likely to be none shorter than Harrison’s for a long time. As you toast him today, you can honestly say he did not overstay his White House tenure. Others could have learned from his example.

No president had died in office before; all the pomp and ceremony for a president’s funeral had to be invented when William Henry Harrison died, just 31 days into his administration. Proper music included a funeral dirge composed by Henry Dielman, cover shown here from the collection of the White House Historical Association.

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Happy birthday John Tyler (b. March 29, 1790)

March 28, 2019

In recitations of the presidents, some people forget Millard Fillmore, some forget Chet Arthur, and some forget John Tyler — which should be amusing, because Tyler served much longer than the man on whose ticket he was elected Vice President, and who died making Tyler the President.

In any case, our 10th President, John Tyler, was born on March 29, 1790, 229 years ago.


A restored daguerreotype of John Tyler in his later years, between 1855 and his death in 1862. Tyler assumed the presidency in 1841, just four years after photography was popularly invented. Very few photos of him are known to exist, all in formal poses. Wikimedia image from the Library of Congress collection of photographs.

Tyler was elected Vice President on the ticket with the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison. Harrison caught cold perhaps during the inauguration on a cold March morning. The cold turned to pneumonia and Harrison died with just 31 days of service, on April 4, 1841.

No president had died in office before. There was some confusion about whether Tyler would simply hold the office until a new election, or take the presidency and fill out the term. Tyler’s political genius may have been in having himself sworn in as president quickly, quashing much of the debate before opposition could muster.

But Tyler, a Whig, fell out of favor with his own party. He served one term. Tyler opposed key Whig Party policies, it turned out, and he lost favor with Whig giant Henry Clay.

A Virginian, Tyler tried to get a compromise on secession before the Civil War, but failed. He died in 1862, a member of the Confederate States’ House of Representatives. (Was he the only past President or Vice President to join the Confederacy? We need some research.)

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March 16, 1751, James Madison born

March 16, 2019

James Madison, by Walker Hancock, 1976. Statue from the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Architect of the Capitol photo.

James Madison’s birth on March 16, 1751, gets no attention as a federal or state holiday. Journalists usually mark the date with a week of festivities around the date, honoring Madison’s deep dedication to the principles of free press and open government, including his authoring and passing the First Amendment.

Madison’s chief notoriety comes from his work organizing the Philadelphia convention and working to ratify the U.S. Constitution — sometimes he’s called the Father of the Constitution. He also served as Secretary of State in Thomas Jefferson’s administration, and served two terms as President, including the War of 1812.

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Happy birthday Andrew Jackson, b. March 15, 1767

March 16, 2019

Andrew Jackson was our 7th President, following John Quincy Adams. He was born before the American Revolution, on March 15, 1767.

From the National Archives, a photo of Andrew Jackson in his later years, by Matthew Brady.

January 9 was Richard Nixon’s 106th birthday

January 11, 2019

[We’ve been preoccupied here in Bathtubland, with family issues; but somehow I let Richard Nixon’s birthday go by without a comment. We really need to remember Nixon now, and why he left the presidency early. So, a couple days late.]

President Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California, on January 9, 1913.

Interesting to see so little public acknowledgement of Nixon’s presidency and his trials and vexations, which history offers insight and perhaps solutions to problems the nation has today.

Some views of Richard Nixon.

National Archives and Records Administration image: Nine-year old Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda, 1922. National Archives Identifier: 306-PSD-68-3769.

National Archives and Records Administration image: Nine-year old Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda, 1922. National Archives Identifier: 306-PSD-68-3769.

Richard Nixon, age 15, holding his violin, ca 1927-1928. Richard Nixon learned to play the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano, and the accordion. When he was 12, Richard was sent to live and study music with his mother’s sister in central California. He returned home six months later and eventually discontinued his studies, but his love of music continued. Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

Richard Nixon, age 15, holding his violin, ca 1927-1928. Richard Nixon learned to play the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano, and the accordion. When he was 12, Richard was sent to live and study music with his mother’s sister in central California. He returned home six months later and eventually discontinued his studies, but his love of music continued. Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

Richard Nixon with two friends, Fullerton High School, Fullerton, CA, circa 1929. (Surely someone could identify the other two men. I wonder who they are? What happened to them?) Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum Identifier: WHPO-B-0199.

Richard Nixon with two friends, Fullerton High School, Fullerton, CA, circa 1929. (Surely someone could identify the other two men. I wonder who they are? What happened to them?) Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum Identifier: WHPO-B-0199.

1945 photograph of Lt. Commander Richard Nixon wearing his Navy uniform. When Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 he wore his Navy uniform as he declared at the time that he did not have a civilian suit. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

1945 photograph of Lt. Commander Richard Nixon wearing his Navy uniform. When Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 he wore his Navy uniform as he declared at the time that he did not have a civilian suit. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Richard Nixon, with wife Pat and daughters Tricia and Julie, watch the antics of their pet cocker spaniel

Vice-President Richard Nixon, with wife Pat and daughters Tricia and Julie, watch the antics of their pet cocker spaniel “Checkers” while on a weekend visit to the Jersey Shore in Mantoloking, NJ, August 16, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House before the Vice President’s Ambassador of Goodwill tour departure to the Far East, October 5, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House before the Vice President’s Ambassador of Goodwill tour departure to the Far East, October 5, 1953. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Nixon spars with Premier Khrushchev before reporters and onlookers, including Politburo member Leonid Brezhnev at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park, in Moscow, 1959. Nixon and Khrushchev are photographed in front of a kitchen display – the impromptu exchanges came to be known as the Kitchen Debate, July 24, 1959. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Vice-President Nixon spars with Premier Khrushchev before reporters and onlookers, including Politburo member Leonid Brezhnev at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park, in Moscow, 1959. Nixon and Khrushchev are photographed in front of a kitchen display – the impromptu exchanges came to be known as the Kitchen Debate, July 24, 1959. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, used with permission of the Richard Nixon Foundation and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

Nixon’s life offers many interesting twists and turns. His Watergate scandal rather overshadows much of the rest — I think high school textbooks do not spend enough time on telling why Nixon was considered a good candidate for the presidency after losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, nor do they dwell enough on the effect of the Cold War on his career, and his effect on the Cold War. Check your kid’s U.S. history book — is the Kitchen Debate even mentioned?

Nixon would have been 105 years old on January 9. We might pause to reflect, and learn, from his life and trials.

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A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating President Richard Nixon’s 105th birthday is moved indoors because of rain. The wreath was placed by a large photo of the 37th president in Yorba Linda on Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Orange County Register caption: A wreath-laying ceremony commemorating President Richard Nixon’s 105th birthday is moved indoors because of rain. The wreath was placed by a large photo of the 37th president in Yorba Linda on Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)


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