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Black Friday, Part 1

Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated on March 4, 1869.  That was also the day Grant’s sister Virginia met Abel Rathbone Corbin.  They were married on May 13 of that same year.

By May 1869 the Grant Administration had established itself as a force for stable currency and debt reduction.  This meant that outstanding Civil War debts were to be paid in dollars that were backed by gold.  Meanwhile, Grant’s new brother-in-law introduced him to some wealthy businessmen from the East.

These men entertained the President, but they were not his friends.  They merely hoped to gain insider information in order to accumulate even more wealth for themselves.  Grant gave them no information, but somehow they believed he was communicating with them through his brother-in-law, and Corbin was willing to let them continue in that belief.

It all came to an end on Black Friday, September 24, 1869.

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss was a Communist spy.  Of that there is no reasonable doubt.  Congressman Richard Nixon proved this when he questioned Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, but the established order of that day refused to accept the truth.  President Truman referred to the Hiss case as a “red herring.”  Eleanor Roosevelt was among a number of good people who came to Hiss’s defense.  Even after Hiss was convicted of perjury, many of his defenders did not change their minds.

Alger Hiss was a Communist spy, but due to the statute of limitations, he was not convicted of espionage.  Instead, he was tried and convicted for perjury.  He served three years and eight months of a five-year sentence and was released in late 1954.  Still there were many who believed he had been wronged.

Even into the 1970s Hiss had his defenders.  After the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign the Presidency, historian Allen Weinstein published a work entitled Perjury which he had begun as an attempt to exonerate Hiss.  However, while working on the book Weinstein obtained 30,000 pages of documents under the Freedom of Information Act which convinced him otherwise.

Alger Hiss was a Communist spy, but Allen Weinstein’s monumental work of scholarship was not enough to convince everyone.  Then the Soviet Union fell and the Soviet archives were opened.  Hiss’s guilt is now irrefutable.

But the Soviet archives were not needed to prove Hiss’s guilt.  Neither were the 30,000 pages that Allen Weinstein obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.  One only has to read Hiss’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Richard Nixon has become one of the villains of American history, but he did the world a great service when, as a freshman Congressman, he cross-examined Alger Hiss.



The National Debt

First of all, we must distinguish between the Federal deficit and the national debt.  The deficit is money the U.S. government borrows in any given year.  The debt is the accumulation of all these borrowings.

The national debt was just under $65 million in 1860.  Then the Civil War happened, and the debt peaked at almost $2.8 billion in 1866.  To U.S. citizens in the 21st century who are burdened with trillion dollar deficits and who rightly complain that the debt has doubled in the last eight years, figures such as $65 million and $2.8 billion may seem relatively insignificant, but they are not.  The national debt did not double or triple or even quadruple between 1860 and 1866.  It was multiplied 43 times!

Ulysses S. Grant, the top General for the victorious Union Army, was inaugurated President on March 4, 1869.  The previous Administration had gotten the debt down to $2.6 billion, but Grant did not think that was good enough.  By the end of May 1869 the debt was reduced another $12 million, and during Grant’s eight years as President the national debt was reduced by 14%.  Most historians do not appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment.  Some don’t even mention it.

The last time the national debt shrank was 1957.  Even though 1956 was also a debt lowering year, the debt did not shrink overall during Eisenhower’s two terms.

1947, 1948, and 1951 were debt shrinking years, but Truman did not shrink the debt overall during almost two terms as President.

The last President to reduce the national debt overall was Calvin Coolidge.  From 1923 through 1928 he reduced the national debt by 24%.  Every year of his Presidency the national debt was lowered.  For this accomplishment Coolidge sometimes receives faint praise.  Usually none.

Now, what about those few years during the Clinton Administration when there were budget surpluses?  Didn’t those surpluses reduce the national debt?  The short answer is no, and the long answer reveals the tricks of government accounting.


Last Friday President Obama boarded a helicopter and left town before President Trump sat down for lunch.  This is customary.  Before there was air travel the President leaving office would catch the train.  He might be invited to lunch, but everyone would expect him to decline.  Apparently, not everyone always gets the memo on this.

On Inauguration Day 1913 departing President Taft rode back to the White House with newly inaugurated President Wilson.  Rather than abruptly leave Taft in the vestibule, Wilson invited him to lunch.  At this point Taft was supposed to decline.  Instead, he accepted.

Taft’s secretary Charles Hilles feared this would happen, and he was ready with a suggestion: there would not be enough time to attend the luncheon without missing the train.  This was not true, but at least it would give Taft an excuse to leave.  But Taft did not want to leave, and he gained everyone’s sympathy against their better judgment.

According to Ike Hoover, when Wilson entered the luncheon “all tried to reach him for a handshake,” but regarding Taft he wrote: “No one seemed to pay any attention to him.”

The chief usher concluded by saying: “The episode was an embarrassing and painful one.  I don’t believe it had ever occurred before, and may it never happen again!  After his successor is inaugurated, the retiring President should make himself scarce just as soon as possible.”

A Few Choice Words

The American people stand firm in the faith which has inspired this Nation from the beginning. We believe that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share in the common good. We believe that all men have a right to freedom of thought and expression. We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.

From this faith we will not be moved.

Harry Truman, January 20, 1949



Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge – and more.

John Kennedy, January 20, 1961



Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.

Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1980



What you do is as important as anything Government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort, to defend needed reforms against easy attacks, to serve your Nation, beginning with your neighbor. I ask you to be citizens: Citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens building communities of service and a nation of character.

George W. Bush, January 20, 2001

Sitting Tall

The desk in the Oval Office, although obviously better than most, was too low for the new President.  He was taller than his predecessor, but that was not the problem.  His chair was just too high.

The barrel chair was something he brought from home, and it was so high that the President could not put his knees under the desk.  After seven months his executive assistant asked why the President always sat slightly sideways.  The answer: he didn’t want to make a fuss.

Not making a fuss regarding his own prerogatives was typical of this President.  One individual who met with him daily wrote: “Not once did I ever hear him refer to himself as the ‘president.’  In fact, be couldn’t even bring himself to use the word ‘I’ in referring to the office of the presidency.  When it came to issues and policies, it was ‘we,’ ‘our,’ ‘we believe’ or ‘we are working to’ or ‘it is our sense.’”  That’s what Jim Kuhn reported on pages 82 and 83 of his book entitled Ronald Reagan in Private.

By the way, Ronald Reagan did not sit sideways for eight years.  The desk was raised two inches in August 1981, but this was not done until the President was on vacation.  That way there was no fuss.

Without Thought of Reward

His mother had attended college where she studied art and music.  When he was five, she taught him to read.  Although he later considered himself to have been a sissy during his childhood, he served as an officer during wartime.  During one battle, when some of the men lost their nerve, he rallied them back into position.  He served honorably during the war, but he received no medals.  The year he left the presidency one of his Secretaries of State won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Another would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize.  For him there were no such prizes.

He wore tailor-made suits.  He attended symphony concerts and brought the score with him to follow along.  Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Strauss were among his favorite composers.  He appreciated the paintings of Holbein, Rubens, and da Vinci.  He read Latin for pleasure.  He was also well-read in history and the Bible.

He regularly prayed the following prayer: “Oh Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe – Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things, make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me.  Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellowmen – help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings – even as Thou understandest mine.”

Humble, honorable, appreciating the finer things in life, and sensitive to the needs of others: that’s just how Harry Truman was.