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A Man of Contradictions

His paternal grandmother gave birth to ten children, two of whom became generals in the Union Army.  His paternal grandfather edited a Midwestern newspaper.  This generation of the family was based in a Northern town that saw traffic on the Underground Railroad.

But his father was not one of the sibling generals, and our protagonist did not grow up in the North or the Midwest.  When he received the news that Lincoln had been elected President, he did not see the people in his town celebrating.  Instead, they prepared for war.  During the Civil War his father was a strong supporter of the South.  After the Civil War his father served as interim pastor of a Southern church where an eminent former pastor had once defended slavery.

Although he grew up in the South, he did not speak with a Southern accent.  He believed the South had every right to secede from the Union, but as President he worked to join dozens of nations into a grand international union.

He had always wanted to become a U.S. Senator, but he was not the sort of man who would normally be appointed by a state legislature.  He probably could have won a popular election to the U.S. Senate, but by the time the 17th Amendment was ratified, he had already been elected President.

He had studied politics all his life and had written books on government, but he was too often stubborn when compromise would have served him better.  Historians of his generation called him a great liberal, but later generations have noticed he was also a white supremacist.  He was a man of great intellect and ambition, and he spent himself in the pursuit of lofty goals, but his second term as President ended in great disappointment.  That’s just how it was for Woodrow Wilson.






Editorial Comment

“[The President-elect] is a clean, learned, honorable, and patriotic man, and the country had better risk the dangers of the economic policy for which his party stands than return to power ‘the great personality’ insane with ambition and heedless of traditions or the lessons of history.”

The person who wrote these words was the editor of a Midwestern newspaper.  The editor had once voted for “the great personality” and then for his hand-picked successor.  Each had been President in his turn, but now, having split the Republican Party vote, neither would be re-elected in 1912.  These men were Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft respectively.  When they ran head to head, the editor supported Taft, who was the incumbent.

Roosevelt was indeed ambitious, but he could still technically say he was not breaking the two-term tradition.  After all, he had been elected only once before.  Prior to 1905 he was serving out McKinley’s unexpired term.

Taft, unlike Roosevelt, was not flamboyant, but he was no less dedicated than his predecessor to breaking up business monopolies.  Roosevelt should have supported Taft in 1912, but instead he challenged him for the nomination.  When this failed, he accepted the nomination of a third party.  Perhaps this is what the editor meant when he accused Roosevelt of being “heedless of traditions or the lessons of history.”

The man who defeated them both that year was Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  He would serve two terms and then be succeeded by a Republican, a freshman Senator who had once been editor of a Midwestern newspaper, the man who penned the sentence at the top of this page, Warren Harding.





Two Who Served Together

Will and his cousin had just heard a rousing speech which encouraged all young men to join the Union Army.  These two eighteen-year-olds watched as the other young men, in an apparently emotional response, were enlisting.  Didn’t they realize that enlisting would be a life-changing decision for them and their families?  The cousins needed time to think it over.

Daily the cousins were reminded of the speech and of the fact they had not enlisted.  They saw the new recruits drilling six days a week, sometimes on the church green, sometimes in the schoolyard.  Will’s cousin later remarked: “I decided to wait and study the situation a little more carefully first.”  After they both enlisted, Will said their decision was made “in cold blood and not through the enthusiasm of the moment.”

The cousins followed the new recruits when they left for Camp Jackson.  All, including the two cousins, were mustered into service on June 11, 1861.  On July 4 one of the officers read the Declaration of Independence to the regiment.

Will survived the war.  He might seem more interesting when you learn his full name: Will Osborne, or more properly, William McKinley Osborne.  He was the nephew of William McKinley, Sr.  His cousin, the fellow who wanted to “study the situation a little more carefully first,” was William McKinley, Jr., and he became the 25th President of the United States.

By the way, the officer who read the Declaration of Independence to the regiment was Rutherford B. Hayes, and he became the 19th President.  The regiment was the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the only regiment to produce two Presidents of the United States.

But He No Speak

The hotel manager was not pleased.  He told the immigrant, “I’m not gonna have that red-headed fellow running around in the lobby.”  Then he asked, “Who is he?”  The immigrant replied, “ ‘Ats-a my partner, but he no speak.”  So goes the dialogue around the 44-minute mark of The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers’ 1929 film.  The hotel manager is played by Groucho Marx, the immigrant is Chico Marx, and the red-headed fellow is Harpo Marx.

The Cocoanuts had been a stage musical from 1925 to 1928.  It played in Washington, D.C. from September 20- 25, 1926, and on Thursday September 23 the President of the United States was in attendance.  Since the President was nicknamed “Silent Cal,” the dialogue for the play had originally been as follows.

Chico:  ‘Ats-a my partner, but he no speak.

Groucho:  It isn’t Coolidge, is it?

Of course, this was good topical humor.  Perhaps some people even remembered that President Coolidge’s sandy-colored hair had been red during his youth.  But despite their penchant for irreverent word-play, the Marx Brothers chose to eliminate the Coolidge line out of respect for the President.

But Groucho could not just leave it at that.  He ad libbed a comment about Idaho Senator William Borah.  Coolidge had asked Borah to be his running mate in 1924, but Borah had declined.  We do not know exactly what Groucho said.  We do not know how the audience reacted.  But it has been reported that Coolidge laughed only once during the entire performance and that it was Groucho’s offhand remark that did it.

Four Important Words

On June 26, 1963 President Kennedy addressed a crowd of 450,000 from the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg in West Berlin.  Although he spoke in English, he included one Latin phrase and two German sentences in his remarks.  The shorter German sentence, a four-word assertion of solidarity with the people of Berlin, has become the most quoted part of this address.  At first, these words were quoted because the implied sentiment was clearly understood, but in the decades that followed, these four words have become a source of amusement.

In an attempt to identify with the people of Berlin, Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  Translated literally, this means “I am a Berliner,” but some have suggested the sentence, translated idiomatically, really means “I am a jelly donut.”  Others have said that while people in the north, west, and southwest regions of Germany may have eaten Berliners at their lunch counters, when the citizens of West Berlin asked for a jelly donut, they used the word Pfannkuchen.  Therefore, Kennedy did not make an inadvertent pun when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Perhaps Kennedy might have better said “Ich bin auch Berliner,” which means “I am also a Berliner.”  Perhaps he might have said “Wir sind alle Berliner,” which means “We are all Berliners.”  Apparently, this phraseology was not suggested to him by the native speakers of German who previewed his speech.  Neither did they object to Kennedy’s use of the indefinite article “ein,” which, when included, gives the sentence a double meaning.

In any event, President Kennedy knew what he meant, and apparently so did the people of West Berlin.  On June 26, when Kennedy addressed the crowd, they stood in the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz.  On November 25, three days after his assassination, it was renamed John-F.-Kennedy-Platz.

“I Was Mistaken”

The answers to the following questions are taken from chapter 16 of Grant’s memoirs.

Q: President Grant, you have told us that in 1856, instead of voting for the antislavery candidate, you voted for James Buchanan, whose party supported slavery.  This seems out of character for you.

A: With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years.  I very much hoped that the passions of the people would subside in that time, and the catastrophe be averted altogether; if it was not, I believed the country would be better prepared to receive the shock and to resist it.

Q: You seem to have been a disciple of that great Whig compromiser, the late Henry Clay.

A: I was a Whig and a great admirer of Mr. Clay.

Q: Even though you had not met the residency requirement and were not eligible to vote in 1860, and even though you felt obligated to Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, were you happy when Mr. Lincoln was elected President?

A: Stephen A. Douglas… had no possible chance of election.  The contest was really between Mr. Breckinridge and Mr. Lincoln; between minority rule and rule by the majority.  I wanted, as between these candidates, to see Mr. Lincoln elected.

Q: But didn’t you believe that Mr. Lincoln’s election was going to cause the Slave States to secede?

A: I still had hope that the four years which had elapsed since the first nomination of a Presidential candidate by a party distinctly opposed to slavery extension, had given time for extreme pro-slavery sentiment to cool down; for the Southerners to think well before they took that awful leap which they had so vehemently threatened.  But I was mistaken.

Under These Circumstances

The answers to the following questions are taken from chapter 16 of Grant’s memoirs.

Q: President Grant, who did you vote for in 1860?

A: When the election took place in November, 1860, I had not been a resident of Illinois long enough to gain citizenship and could not, therefore, vote.

Q: Who would you have voted for?

A: My pledges would have compelled me to vote for Stephen A. Douglas.

Q: So, you were a Democrat?

A: I was a Whig by education and a great admirer of Mr. Clay.  But the Whig party had ceased to exist before I had an opportunity of exercising the privilege of casting a ballot.

Q: When did you first vote in a Presidential election?

A: The Presidential election of 1856.

Q: Why didn’t you vote in 1852 or 1848 or 1844?  You were old enough and could have voted for the Whig candidate each time.

A: I had been in the army from before attaining my majority and had thought but little about politics.

Q: So, when you voted in 1856, you voted for the Whig candidate?

A: The Whig party had ceased to exist before I had an opportunity of exercising the privilege of casting a ballot; the Know-Nothing party had taken its place, but was on the wane.

Q: Did you vote Republican in 1856?

A: It was evident to my mind that the election of a Republican President in 1856 meant the secession of all Slave States, and rebellion.  Under these circumstances I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no man could foretell… I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.