Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What You Didn’t Know About the Lincoln Assassination

I’m reading Assassination Vacation right now, a book by Sarah Vowell about her trips across America to visit destinations involved with Presidential assassinations.
The Lincoln Administration Assassination?

If everything went as planned, it wouldn’t have been just the Lincoln Assassination – it would have been the Lincoln Administration Assassination. At the same time John Wilkes Booth was offing Lincoln, two accomplices were supposed to be doing the same to Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth thought he could also kill General U.S. Grant, who was supposed to have been attending Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns. Johnson’s assassin chickened out and didn’t even attempt; the Seward attempt was unsuccessful. He was stabbed a number of times but survived. U.S. and Julia Grant declined the Lincoln’s invitation, so Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris went in their place. Rathbone was a military officer and Harris was the daughter of U.S. Senator Ira Harris. In a weird side note, Rathbone’s mother married Harris’ father, making them step-siblings as well as husband and wife when they eventually tied the knot.
The Kidnapping Plot
Actually, before it was an assassination plot, it was a kidnapping plot. Booth wanted to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Southern Prisoners of War. In 1865, Booth spent about $4,000 of his own money to arrange the kidnapping. There are couple of reasons why the plot failed. At one point, Booth was lying in wait to kidnap Lincoln, but he didn’t show up at the right time. Then, a couple of days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, Booth was in attendance when Lincoln gave a speech about giving black people the right to vote. Infuriated, Booth decided a mere kidnap attempt wouldn’t do – assassination was the only answer.
His Name is Mudd

People will still debate this point today – did Dr. Samuel Mudd have a part in the assassination, or was he merely a doctor doing his duty? Here’s the story: After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped off the balcony to escape. The spur of his boot got caught in the flag hanging on the balcony and he fell to the stage rather ungracefully, breaking his leg.

He somehow managed to escape on horseback anyway, and went to Dr. Mudd’s house in southern Maryland on his way to Virginia. Mudd set Booth’s leg and even had a carpenter make him a pair of crutches. Mudd never contacted authorities, not even when he went to town the next day and saw the news of Lincoln’s assassination (if he had not heard of it before then). A couple days later, he finally asked his cousin to tell the Cavalry what happened. Mudd was questioned and didn’t tell the whole truth, thus making him suspicious. He said he had met Booth before, but only once, and only coincidentally. The truth was, the pair had met at least twice before the fateful night in April when Mudd fixed Booth’s leg. The first time, Booth was scouting out the area “for real estate” and was introduced to Mudd. Some people believe he was there to recruit Mudd in the assassination plot. The second time, Booth, Mudd, and two other men who had roles in the murder had drinks together in Washington. Mudd accidentally (or not) forgot to mention the second meeting.

Mudd was convicted for being part of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln, and he served nearly four years at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles from Key West. After one escape attempt, Mudd was an outstanding prisoner who saved the lives of many inmates when Yellow Fever broke out at the Fort in 1867. When prison doctor died, Mudd took over his duties.

Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan wrote letters to the Mudd family during their administrations stating that Samuel Mudd had only been performing his duties as a doctor, and was clear of all suspicion.
John Wilkes Booth’s Mummy

Most people believe that John Wilkes Booth died when soldiers caught up to him at the Garrett Farm in Virginia. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn he was hiding in was set on fire, and Booth was fatally shot in the neck. I guess the soldiers wanted to cover their bases. But of course, some people believe it wasn’t really Booth in the barn. Supposedly, Booth escaped, and a look-alike died in his place. Here’s how that story came about: In the 1870s, a man named Finis Bates became friends with a man named John St. Helen. St. Helen became very ill and thought he was on his deathbed. He confessed to Bates that he was John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen recovered and denied ever saying it, then skipped town. Then, roughly 30 years later, a man named David E. George died and had confessed to someone else that he was John Wilkes Booth. Bates traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, where George had died, to see if it was the same man he knew as John St. Helen. It was. The body was mummified, sold and toured for a while, including at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Its whereabouts today are unknown.
The Robert Todd Lincoln Curse

Robert Todd Lincoln might have been the kiss of death for Presidents. He wasn’t actually at Ford’s Theater when his father was shot, although he was invited to go. He was informed that the elder Lincoln had been shot and made it to his deathbed. A little more than 16 years later, in 1881, President James A. Garfield invited Robert Todd (Garfield’s Secretary of War) to accompany him to his alma mater, Williams College, to give a speech. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the train station on his way to the speech, with Robert Todd standing right there. Fast-forward another 20 years and you’ll find Robert Todd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. You know who else was there? President McKinley and his assassin, Leon F. Czolgosz. Although Robert Todd didn’t witness the shooting, he was definitely present when it happened. In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell says that when Robert Todd was asked to attend some White House function later in life, he declined and grumbled, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there.”

A few other tidbits about the Lincoln Assassination:

• Later in life, Henry Rathbone lost his mind and tried to kill himself. Although that attempt failed, he succeeding in shooting his wife, Clara, before stabbing her to death. He went after his kids, too, but that didn’t pan out. His son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, later represented Illinois in the U.S. Congress.

• Like Robert Todd Lincoln, maybe Ford’s Theater was cursed. The government bought the theater from owner John Ford, then gutted it to create an office building. In 1893, the inner structure of the building collapsed and killed 22 people. The building was then used as a warehouse for a bit, and then remained empty until it was reconstructed to look like the original theater. It reopened in 1968.

• You can find one of John Wilkes Booth’s legacies in Central Park. Well, a legacy of sorts. On November 25, 1864, Booth performed Julius Caesar with his two brothers at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. Proceeds from the play went to buy a statue of Shakespeare for Central Park, and it’s still there today.

10 Failed Assassination Attempts

1. Andrew Jackson, 1835. I love this one, because when house painter Richard Lawrence’s shots misfired, Old Hickory beat him with a cane until he could be apprehended. Dude was tough.
2. Teddy Roosevelt, 1912. Teddy was giving a speech in Milwaukee when he was shot once by saloon-keeper John Schrank. Unperturbed, Roosevelt announced that he had been shot but insisted on finished out his speech anyway. His thick speech and his glasses case stopped the bullet from being fatal. The bullet was never removed.
3. Franklin Roosevelt, 1933. Giuseppe Zangara shot five times at Roosevelt. He wounded four people and killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. The shooting happened on February 15; Zangara was executed in Florida’s infamous Old Sparky for Cermak’s murder on March 20.
4. Harry Truman, 1950. Two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists walked right up to the Blair House, where Truman was staying, with intent to assassinate Truman. One of the men distracted Secret Service while the other approached a guard booth and killed the guard inside. President Truman looked out his bedroom window; one of the activists was only 31 feet away. Both men were killed by gunfire – one at the hand of the other, and one by the Secret Service.

5. JFK, 1960. Years before Lee Harvey Oswald, 73-year-old Richard Pavlick intended to crash his car, loaded up with dynamite, into Kennedy’s car. Pavlick saw Jackie and Caroline saying goodbye to the President and decided to call the operation off. When he was pulled over for a moving violation a few days later, he still had dynamite in his car and the Secret Service nabbed him.
6. Richard Nixon #1, 1972. Arthur Bremer intended to shoot Nixon when he was visiting Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. He was unable to get a good shot and there was too much security due to Vietnam War protests. When he gave up on that attempt, he settled for shooting Democratic Presidential Candidate George Wallace a month later instead.
7. Nixon #2, 1974. Samuel Byck, a former tire salesman, hijacked a plane at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. He shot both the pilot and the co-pilot and told a passenger to fly the plane. Byck was shot through the glass of the aircraft door and ended up finishing himself off before the police could make their way into the cockpit.
8. Gerald Ford #1, 1975. Charles Manson devotee Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to shoot Ford when he was shaking hands in a crowd in Sacramento. She tried to fire on him when he reached to shake her hand, but the firing chamber was empty.
9. Gerald Ford #2, 1975. Just 17 days later, on September 22, Sara Jane Moore fired at Ford in San Francisco. The guy standing next to Moore saw what was happening and jerked her arm away, making the shot miss the President. She was paroled just last year.
10. Jimmy Carter, 1979. Carter was in L.A. to give a speech when a man was arrested with a gun. His story was that he was only there to distract Secret Service; other hit men with sniper rifles were waiting in the wings to assassinate Carter. The man, Raymond Lee Harvey, escaped conviction because there was a lack of evidence.

Friday, July 11, 2008


The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It

By Julia Keller

Viking. 294 pp. $25.95

The Gatling gun, invented during the Civil War by an ardent Unionist but not really put into use until afterward, bore only passing resemblance to the modern machine gun. Mounted on a carriage, towed into position by horses or troops, it was large, clumsy and had limited mobility. It was used by the artillery rather than by the infantry (which now employs what Julia Keller calls "the deadly bouquet of assorted assault rifles"), and it was rejected by the Union's procurement officer, who "was notoriously resistant to any sort of innovation in firearms."

Had that officer been less stiff-necked and more open-minded, it's possible that the war would have ended sooner and the casualty lists would have been shorter. Or so one can infer from Keller: "For all of Richard Jordan Gatling's cool-headed technical finesse and businessman's brio, he actually came up with his gun, he claimed, for the most tender-hearted of reasons: as a way of saving lives. 'It occurred to me,' he wrote to a friend in 1877, 'that if I could invent a machine -- a gun -- which could by rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.' As disingenuous and self-serving as that sentiment sounds, it ended up being quite correct: Innovations in arms steadily reduced the relative lethality of battles (not to mention the cost of waging war) throughout the twentieth century."

The great significance of the Gatling gun, as subsequent use demonstrated all too bloodily, was that it began the transformation of warfare from man-to-man combat into a depersonalized arena in which "men, women, and children were like stalks of wheat beneath a scythe," mowed down with total disregard for their individuality. It presaged modern warfare in all the dehumanized anonymity with which combatants and innocents are killed. But Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, looks on a brighter side as well:

"The Gatling gun is a weapon of death, but its story is not altogether grim. For it is also the story of a nation on the rise and of a man who, by inventing a new kind of machine, helped propel it in that upward trajectory. It is the story of a country just at the moment when its destiny begins to stir, and of an individual whose career was hitched to that amazing creative and economic boom. It is the story of one genius who helped push America to the top, a man of decency and vision and ambition, a man who held dozens of patents for a variety of life-enhancing gadgets but who died disillusioned, his name attached in the popular mind not to plows or bicycles or flush toilets or dry-cleaning machines, all of which he improved, but to a gun. A utilitarian device whose use came down to a chilling simplicity: death."

As that paragraph suggests, Keller is given to broad strokes, sweeping generalizations, large claims and overheated prose. More about that later. For now suffice it to say that she's obviously smart and has done a lot of interesting research into the life of a man who is almost totally forgotten. Whether this is the great injustice she believes it to be is for each reader to decide, but Gatling was a formidably inventive man at a time when Yankee tinkerers -- "untutored dreamers," Keller calls them -- were coming up with new stuff day after day and flooding the Patent Office with their inventions. Gatling "was no crackpot eccentric, but a respected and socially connected businessman, married to the daughter of a prominent Indianapolis physician." Indeed, Keller finds it "difficult to reconcile the man who created the Gatling gun with the loyal husband and gentle father, to reconcile the canny, competitive arms merchant with the decent, peace-loving citizen," though in truth those contradictions have been constant themes in the business, commercial and industrial life of this country and most others.

Keller argues that Gatling possessed a "phenomenal mechanical genius," and though "genius" strikes me as more than a bit over the top, the range of his inventions is impressive. Early in his career he came up with "a new variety of plow, a cotton cultivator, a washer to tighten gears more effectively"; between 1844 and 1862, he obtained "nine patents for agricultural implements; his inventions include a hemp brake, a rotary plow, a lath-making machine, a gearing machine and a steam-driven marine ram." All told, he received 43 patents in his lifetime. One of his agricultural inventions, a seed planter, was the inspiration, Keller believes, for the gun: "Fed by a gravity-driven hopper, the seeds dropped, one by one, into the furrow. Gatling couldn't get that process out of his mind: its rotating simplicity, its smooth mechanical perfection." She traces this idea to the summer of 1861. By then it was clear that the Civil War, which confident Yankees thought would be over in a matter of weeks, was going to be a tough slog. Keller writes:

"Gatling had everything he needed: the basic mechanical design, embodied in his seed planter; the moral imperative, supplied by the memory of the dead and ailing soldiers as they arrived at the Indianapolis train station; and the commercial impulse, which arose as a possibly awkward but completely predictable consequence of the realization that this might well be a drawn-out, expensive affair. It might last years, not months, despite all the breezy hypothesizing at the outset. And long wars meant large profits for gunmakers."

By 1863 Gatling's gun was in production, and he sold 13 that year, principally to the controversial Union general Benjamin F. Butler, who bought them "for a thousand dollars apiece with his own money, after the ordnance department had turned down his request for funds." He doesn't seem to have gotten productive use out of them. "Indeed," Keller writes, "the only place in which a Gatling gun was destined to make an appreciable difference during the Civil War wasn't on a battlefield at all. It didn't come in the midst of a struggle between competing armies. And it would set the tone for the weapon's dark reputation later in the century, for its grim identification with the forces of oppression and exploitation."

In July 1863, during the draft riots in New York City, three Gatling guns were set up at the offices of the New York Times, whose editor, Henry Jarvis Raymond, was an outspoken opponent of the rioters' anti-draft sentiments. The mob approached the Times but backed off when it saw the guns: "The story foretells the way Gatling's guns would be deployed after the war: as menacing symbols, as icons of sheer destructive ferocity, even if they just sat there." That's putting it a little melodramatically, but in essence it's true. During the last three decades of the 19th century, "Gatling guns were purchased by police departments, state militias, and factory owners" and became known as "tools of domination and intimidation, both at home and abroad." In time "Gatling guns became the weapon of choice for British forces determined to enforce colonial rule in Africa," and Teddy Roosevelt became their ardent champion; he called them the "inseparable companions" of his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.

Gatling died in 1903 at 85. The likely explanation for his drift into the fog of history is that his gun was soon replaced by other automatic weapons -- light, portable, efficient and even more deadly -- and the phrase "Gatling gun" pretty much vanished from common usage. Certainly the gun seems a period piece now, though it's difficult to find anything to regret in that. Its inventor's story is interesting, but it really can't carry all the thematic weight Keller lards onto it -- she works overtime trying to portray him as the definitive 19th-century American -- and there are times when her prose simply gets out of hand: "No, no, no. His head was too full of all the things he wanted to build. Things he thought he could sell, thereby building a great fortune. He was a restless young man. He was brimming with energy and purpose and hope. He had caught his country's peculiar fever. There was no cure," or, "Richard Gatling and his brothers had followed different rivers as they moved beyond their youth, into the world at large; but everything eventually would come back to one river, the river of the past, and it ran, as it always does, from darkness into light and then into darkness again."

Whatever that means. What it means to me is: Beware of journalists who think they're poets. ·

Saturday, July 5, 2008

5 Forgotten Founding Fathers

There were 56 men who put quill to parchment during the Summer of Independence in 1776. Most of the signers would be unrecognized today, even if they turned up on Dancing with the Stars. In their time, they were colorful men, prominent patriots and leaders of their colonies. So this Independence Day weekend, let us reacquaint ourselves with five of these forgotten Founding Fathers.

Carter Braxton—Virginia (1736-1797)
One of the few signers from Virginia whose name wasn’t Jefferson or Lee, Carter Braxton nevertheless belonged to the colony’s plantation-owning aristocracy.

He sired 18 children—surely qualifying him as a founding father by anyone’s standards. His first wife, who brought him a small fortune that augmented his own, died in childbirth two years after their marriage. His second wife went on to give birth to their last 16 offspring, and outlived her virile husband by 17 years.

In 1761, the same year his second marriage began, Braxton, then 25, was elected to the House of Burgesses for King William County, in southeast Virginia. By the spring of 1775, tensions with the British were running high. The day after shots were fired in anger at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the British colonial governor of Virginia seized the gunpowder stored in Williamsburg. Local militias were itching to fight to retrieve the powder. Cooler heads – among them Braxton’s and George Washington’s – convinced most of the militiamen to stand down. Still, one militia, led by Patrick Henry, threatened to retaliate unless the British returned the gunpowder or paid for it.

Braxton intervened. He set up a meeting with the king’s receiver-general, who happened to be Braxton’s father-in-law. Braxton convinced him to pay for the gunpowder. Revolution in Virginia was saved for another day.

In early 1776, Braxton went to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to fill the seat of a Virginia delegate who had died. Historical sources disagree about Braxton’s initial position on independence, but in the end he signed on. His is the final name in the Virginia delegation, the bottom-most name on the entire parchment.

Button Gwinnett—Georgia (1732 or 1735-1777)
Even by the standards of the revolutionary period, Georgia’s Button Gwinnett practiced X-treme politics. He was born in England and arrived in Savannah in 1765, when the colony of Georgia was just 33 years old. He bought land for a plantation, but failed as a gentleman farmer.

Where Carter Braxton was moderate and conciliatory, Gwinnett was incendiary. As the split with Britain widened, he became a leader of Georgia’s radical faction of patriots. In 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress. His signature on the Declaration of Independence is the first of Georgia’s three-man delegation, at the far left of the document.

Back home in 1777, Gwinnett participated in the convention that drew up Georgia’s first state constitution. He also sought the leadership of the Georgia militia, a position that went to Col. Lachlan McIntosh, a prominent member of a rival political faction.

Gwinnett’s “ambition was disappointed,” the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich wrote in Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1856), “and being naturally hasty in his temper, and in his conclusions, he seems, from this time, to have regarded Colonel McIntosh as a personal enemy.”

After the president of Georgia’s Committee of Safety (the state’s executive council) died, Gwinnett was appointed to finish his term. The only vote opposing Gwinnett’s candidacy was cast by George McIntosh—Lachlan’s brother. As council president Gwinnett was Georgia’s commander-in-chief, and he proposed an attack on British East Florida to secure Georgia’s southern border.

The McIntosh brothers and their circle condemned the plan as politically motivated. Gwinnett had George McIntosh arrested for treason. Amid the power struggle between Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh, the Florida expedition failed, and when a new legislature convened, it declined to elect Gwinnett governor. It also cleared Gwinnett of charges of wrongdoing in the Florida debacle. This gwinnett.jpginfuriated Lachlan McIntosh, who denounced his rival publicly. Gwinnett, following the script of the times, sought satisfaction from McIntosh’s attack on the field of honor.

“They fought [with pistols] at the distance of only 12 feet,” the Rev. Goodrich wrote. “Both were severely wounded. The wound of Mr. Gwinnett proved mortal; and on the 27th of May, 1777, in the forty-fifth year of his age, he expired.”

Gwinnett’s name lives on in suburban Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta, and in the value placed by collectors on his signature, the rarest of the Founding Fathers.

Robert Treat Paine—Massachusetts (1731-1814)
During two trials in 1770, as John Adams argued for the defense of the British soldiers who carried out the Boston Massacre, the man who faced him as prosecutor was friend and fellow Harvard graduate Robert Treat Paine. Adams proved to have the superior courtroom strategy. Juries acquitted the British commander and six soldiers for the murder of five Americans. Two other soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter, punished and released.

Adams described Paine as conceited, but enjoyed his quick wit, and he was elected to the Massachusetts colonial assembly the same year as the trial. Paine was chosen a delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, where he acquired the nickname “Objection Maker” as independence from Britain was being argued. “He seldom proposed anything, but opposed nearly every measure that was proposed by other people…” said Benjamin Rush, a semi-forgotten Founding Father from Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, Paine signed the declaration – one of five Massachusetts men to do so. He went on to become the new state’s attorney general, served on the committee that drafted the Massachusetts constitution, and was a founding member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. In 1796, he accepted a seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where he served until increasing deafness and poor health forced his resignation in 1804.

“It would divert you to witness conversation between my ancient friend and colleague Robert T. Paine and me,” an elderly John Adams wrote in 1811. “He is above 80. I cannot speak and he cannot hear. Yet we converse.”

Edward Rutledge—South Carolina (1749-1800)
In 1774, just a year after returning to his native Charleston upon completing his legal studies in England, Edward Rutledge was elected to the Continental Congress. Two years later, at age 26, he was the youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Benjamin Franklin, at 70, was the oldest.)

rutledge.jpgEdward and his elder brother John were both central figures in South Carolina politics and the fight for independence – John gave up his seat in Congress before independence was declared to help rewrite South Carolina’s constitution – thus missing the chance to have his own section in this article.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Edward was working to delay the moment independence was declared. “Rutledge firmly believed that the Colonies should first confederate and nurture foreign alliances to strengthen themselves for the perilous step they were about to take,” according to a biography published by the National Park Service.

In a vote on independence on July 1, Rutledge led the South Carolina delegation in opposing a break with Britain. Nine of the 13 colonies were in favor, so Rutledge proposed another vote the next day. On July 2, South Carolina sided with the majority for independence.

By the end of August, the British had occupied Long Island and were poised to conquer New York City. Admiral Lord Richard Howe sent out peace feelers, and Rutledge was chosen, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to meet with the British commander. The discussion ended without positive results.

Rutledge spent the war years in political and military activities in South Carolina. As a militia captain, he was captured by the British when they conquered Charleston in 1780. Rutledge spent a year in prison, until he was released in a prisoner swap.

He served in the state legislature in 1782-1798. During this period, the legislature appointed him a presidential elector three times. His flourishing law practice and investments in plantations expanded his wealth.

By the time he was elected governor, in 1798, his health was failing. He died in early 1800, at age 50. Elder brother John died the same year.

William Whipple—New Hampshire (1730-1785)
Born in Kittery, Maine, William Whipple shipped out to sea early as a cabin boy. By the time he retired from the mariner’s life, around the age of 30, he had captained ships and was a wealthy man. He settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and went into business as a merchant with his brother.

By 1775, his fortune secure, Whipple had the wherewithal and local standing to be elected to statewide offices and then to the Continental Congress. He was the second of three New Hampshire men to sign the Declaration of Independence. The first – fans of TV’s West Wing will appreciate – was Josiah Bartlett (although the eponymous fictional president had only one “t” in his last name).

Whipple’s sea-toughened revolutionary activities were just beginning. In 1777, he became brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia. That autumn, he was a commander in the American campaign against the British that led to Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The American victory prevented the British from severing New England from the rest of the country. And it demonstrated that the Americans could defeat the British on their own.

Throughout the campaign, Whipple was attended by a slave named Prince. It is believed Prince is the black oarsman depicted in the famous Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware, although it’s doubtful Prince actually was at the crossing.

In 1780, Whipple was elected to the New Hampshire General Assembly, and in 1782 was made a judge of the state Supreme Court. By then he was suffering from heart failure, and he once fainted on his horse while riding his circuit.

In 1875, the New Hampshire Patriot summed up his legacy this way: “If not a star of the first magnitude…the life of Whipple yet emitted a clear and steady effulgence, which sided in conducting the people in to the goal of independence.”

Getting to Know Franklin Pierce

We’ve been hearing a lot about the more popular Presidents this holiday weekend. But for some reason, nobody’s mentioned Franklin Pierce. Let’s change that by revisiting David Holzel’s piece on the man they called Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, which originally ran last year.

He is America’s most obscure president
One in a series of forgettable mid-19th-century presidents, Pierce, who served from 1853-1857, is arguably the most forgettable. Thirteenth president Millard Fillmore is generally regarded as America’s least-known president. That is a distinction Franklin Pierce lacks, making him even more obscure than Fillmore.

2. He may not have hit that woman with his carriage
Pierce was denied renomination by the Democratic Party in 1856 (the only elected president to have been rejected so out of hand). After being given the heave-ho, he has widely been quoted as telling a friend, “There is nothing left to do but get drunk.”

While many of us in the same position would stop at the nearest tavern for a session of Beer Pong, the story sounds apocryphal. Presidential historian Paul Boller repeats the quotation in his recent book, Presidential Diversions (Harcourt, 2007). When I asked him about it, he said Pierce must have been joking.

Pierce unquestionably drank heavily during certain periods of his life, and alcoholism contributed to or caused his death. But he didn’t make a habit of announcing it.

Another story — that Pierce ran over an elderly woman with his carriage — is almost certainly false, according to historian Peter Wallner, whose Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union (Plaidswede) was published this year.

“The fact that there are no newspaper stories about the accident and it wasn’t mentioned in any correspondence convinced me that it probably didn’t happen,” Wallner told me.

3. He took on the mob. Or at least a mob.
As a staunch Democrat and believer in following the strict meaning of the Constitution, Pierce was an outspoken critic of the Civil War as prosecuted by Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose approach to constitutional freedoms was more free form. After Lincoln was assassinated, a group of citizens in Pierce’s hometown of Concord, N.H., gathered on the street to express their grief and to confront neighbors who were not displaying the flag in that moment of national tragedy.

Eventually some 200-400 Concordians reached Pierce’s house and, as Wallner recounts in Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, demanded to know where the former president was keeping his flag.

“It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes…” Pierce replied testily, and then reiterated his patriotic bona fides by recalling his ancestors’ participation in the Revolution and the War of 1812, and his own 35-year service to New Hampshire and the nation.

Whether he swayed the crowd with his oratory, or just wore them down, the mob gave Pierce three cheers and dispersed without burning his house down.

4. He was a better ex-president
Pierce was a better ex-president than president, if for no other reason than he no longer was in office. He spent much of his time tending to his wife, Jane, who was dying slowly of tuberculosis. The couple spent the winter of 1857-58 in the Portuguese islands of Madeira, where they studied French in anticipation of a tour of the continent.

Their European travels during 1858-59 took them to Switzerland and Italy, Paris and London. Once back in the USA, Pierce busied himself by purchasing various pieces of property in his home state of New Hampshire.

He also kept up a steady stream of political correspondence and, before he and Jane left to spend the winter of 1859-60 in the Bahamas, Pierce wrote to his former secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, urging him to be the Democratic Party’s “standard bearer in 1860,” according to Wallner. Jane Pierce died on Dec. 2, 1863, at age 57.

5. He perfected the comb-over (!?)
Pierce had some of the finest hair of any U.S. president. One witness described it approvingly as a “mass of curly black hair … combed on a deep slant over his wide forehead.” And that was after viewing Pierce’s body in state after his death in 1869.

Yet that mass of curls may have been an act of misdirection away from the truth that deep slant hinted at. In an 1862 photograph, Pierce’s hair in profile appears to exist on two levels – above, the hair combed on a deep slant, and below, a small patch at the front and center of his wide forehead.

Pierce’s hair unquestionably is a subject for future historians to wrestle with.

Slaughterhouse 1945

Kurt Vonnegut’s new book Armageddon in Retrospect is about war and peace. Included is a letter he wrote to his family in 1945 explaining the late author’s stint as a POW in Dresden. His experiences became the basis of the book Slaughterhouse Five.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to Hellexisdorf on the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen. But not me.

Washington’s Boyhood Home Found

Excavations at Ferry Farm in Virginia have turned up the foundation of George Washington’s boyhood home. Half a million artifacts have been uncovered and are being studied for clues about Washington’s early life.

“When you look at the normal biographies of Washington, they start when he’s 23,” said David Muraca, who oversaw the excavation as director of archaeology at the George Washington Foundation, which owns Ferry Farm.

“This piece of the story is very difficult for historians to get their hands around,” he said. “This dig will let us start our stories much earlier.”

Washington first lived in the house at Ferry Farm in 1738, when he was six years old. After seven years of work, the team has identified the floor plan, despite the fact that stones were recycled when the home was altered and remodeled over time.

Thomas Paine: Hero, Patriot … and a Paine in the Butt!

Thomas Paine was a writer, agitator, Anglo-American revolutionary, and professional troublemaker. They certainly don't make 'em like him any more ... Here's the life story of one of the most colorful characters of the American Revolution:

Thomas Paine's life was pretty exciting to say the least. He was a central figure in both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. During Paine's event-filled 72 years, he took on the British government and army, the French king, and anyone else he considered an opponent of liberty. Though Paine was entirely self-taught, his works - Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, to name just a few - probably did more to advance the cause of democracy than those of any other modern writer.


Born in England in 1737, Tom Paine was poor and badly educated. He grew into a cranky young man, unable to hold down either a regular job or a relationship. By his mid-20s, Paine had held and lost a string of positions and had been married twice.

Thomas Paine's home in Lewes, England. Photo: Kto288 [wikipedia]

Paine's life was at a low ebb when, in his late 30s, he found work as a customs officer. Customs men were held in low esteem (even the smugglers they were hired to capture were more popular.) The work paid little and was thankless - so Paine decided to do something about it. He had a passion for self-improvement and was constantly reading books on science, politics, and philosophy. Inspired by his reading, Paine organized his coworkers into a protest group to agitate for better conditions. He also wrote the first of his many political tracts, The Case of the Officers of the Excise. But Paine's attempt at a workers' revolt failed, and he was fired.


That was when things started to look up. Paine moved to London, and while there, got to know Benjamin Franklin (both men attended meetings of the same scientific society.) Franklin recognized Paine as a man of spirit and energy, and so recommended that Paine head for America, where his ornery nature would fit right in. Franklin even wrote Paine some letters of introduction. It was Paine's good luck to arrive in America just when the colonies' simmering squabbles with the mother country were coming to the boil. As someone who already had a grudge against His Majesty's government, Paine wasted no time in joining the fray. In late 1774, he found a job with the Pennsylvania Magazine and set about writing article after article denouncing what he saw as the inequality, injustice, and corruption around him. Aged 37, Thomas Paine had a new lease of life.


Up to the time, the main gripe between the British government and the American colonists was about why America's settlers should pay taxes to the British government when they were not allowed any representation in the British parliament ("no taxation without representation," as the saying goes).

But as far as Paine was concerned, Americans shouldn't be negotiating for representation in the British Parliament - they should be demanding independence from Britain itself. Thomas Paine's pioneering role in passionately and powerfully arguing for America's independence should never be underestimated.

On January 10, 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a 50-page pamphlet that laid out the case for American independence in no uncertain terms. It was an immediate sensation, with 500,000 copies sold. Common Sense heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence, published on July 4, 1776, just six months later.


But after having written the script for the American Revolution, Paine found that his services were no longer required. He was given a number of minor political posts by the Continental Congress during the war, but just to keep him out of the way. Wealthy, politically ambitious Brahmins like John Jay and John Adams were not prepared to give a loose cannon like Paine any responsibility.

Instead, Paine was encouraged to continue his verbal assaults on the hated British. Between 1776 and 1783, Paine reeled off 16 pamphlets designed to boost the war effort. They were called the Crisis Papers. The first of these, which begins with the famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls," so inspired George Washington that he ordered it read aloud to the troops during their darkest days at Valley Forge.

THE $64,000 ANSWER

At the end of the war, Paine found himself famous but poor. Although his pamphlets had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Paine accepted no royalties from them, insisting instead that the price of each pamphlet be kept low enough for ordinary folk to afford.

To alleviate Paine's poverty, his supporters in Congress put forward a bill offering financial assistance to the hero of the revolution. But the Brahmins blocked the bill. In the end, the State of Pennsylvania came to Paine's rescue by offering him a sum of £500 (which would translate to about $64,000 in today's U.S. currency). The New York State also pitched in, donating a farm for him in New Rochelle, now a suburb of New York City.


So, having sort of single-handedly launched the American War of Independence, Paine turned his attention to Europe. Once again, his timing was perfect: Paine arrived just after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. When, in 1791, the British politician Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, attacking the uprising, Paine hit back with The Rights of Man.


Paine's book was an immediate sensation, and has since been recognized as an all-time classic of political writing. It has sold more than 500,000 copies and was the best-selling book of the entire 18th century. The book didn't just defend the French Revolution, it attacked the monarchy, undemocratic governments, the rich, the powerful, and pretty much anyone else Paine saw as responsible for the misery around him - in Britain as much as in France.

He then laid out his own plans for an alternative government, with policies including pensions for the poor, free education, and lots of other radical ideas. The British government was horrified by all this radical theorizing: Paine was declared a traitor and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Memorial coins were created with Paine's face on them, so that British aristocrats could set them into heels of their boots and grind Paine's face into the dust each time they went for a walk!


But Paine had already fled. The French, recognizing a kindred spirit, had elected Paine to a seat in their revolutionary government, the National Convention.

However, as in America, Paine managed to tick off his revolutionary colleagues. When the National Convention voted to execute the ousted king, Louis XVI, Paine was among those who protested.

At this time the revolutionary government was under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, a hard-line radical prone to chopping off the heads of anyone who got in his way. Paine was imprisoned in 1793, threatened with execution, and held captive until Robespierre's fall from power the following year. On his release, Paine published the Age of Reason, an attack on organized religion and his last great work.


Paine hung out in France until 1802, just to make sure the revolution was safe. (It wasn't. By this time, Napoleon had seized power and set up a military dictatorship). Fed up with the infighting among the French, Paine returned to America.

But when he got there he wasn't welcome any more. America was no longer Britain's rebellious younger sibling, but a grown-up power in her own right. Professional revolutionaries like Paine were unwanted in a country looking for a period of peace and quiet.

Outgoing president John Adams branded Paine as "that insolent Blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent, Libeler of all that is good." If that weren't bad enough, Adams went on to describe Paine as "a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf."


Rejected by the country he helped to create, Paine turned to drink. He died penniless in 1809 in New York City. His obituary in the New York Citizen claimed, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm," which just goes to show how much history had been rewritten even during Paine's own lifetime. It was only in the mid-20th century that Paine's rehabilitation began.

A Thomas Paine monument in New Rochelle, New York. Photo: Anthony22 [wikipedia]

On May 18, 1953, a bust of Paine was unveiled in the New York University Hall of Fame, and since then, his reputation as a fighter for freedom and justice has been gradually restored, piece by piece.


Thomas Paine was a writer of power and passion whose life-long quest was to make the world a better place. His words - such as these - are as relevant now as ever:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners; my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive ... When these things can be said, then may that country boasts its constitution and its government.