Archive for the ‘Early nineteenth century (1810-1850)’ Category

The other night we watched yet another of those “disasters of the Apocalypse” shows that seem to pop up with almost absurd frequency these days.  It’s usually the Discovery Channel, or the History Channel, or the Learning Channel, but they’re on all the time.  I suppose it has something to do with the ominous approach of 2012, the year the Mayan calendar ends and a bunch of people believe “the big one” is going to go up.

Didn’t the Mayans live a thousand years ago?  Their calendar probably ended in 2012 simply because they found more entertaining ways to occupy their time.  Hopefully the weight that lots of people give to this nonsense is mostly just a figment of my imagination, because if it’s not, then there are a lot of people that haven’t (unlike the Mayans) found more entertaining ways to occupy their time.

But I digress.  Anyways, this show was one we hadn’t seen before and was narrated by Samuel Jackson.  It was sort of a countdown of the various ways lots of people could get killed by disasters.  There was a big rainstorm over California at Number 5.  Number 4 I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was worse than a container of duck toys spilling into the Pacific.  Numbers 2 and 1 were completely predictable.  Two was a massive tsunami caused by a volcanic eruption and landslide at La Palma island in the Azores…this has been described on a dozen different “what-if” shows.  And of course, Numero Uno was the mega-volcano erupting in Yellowstone, which would lay waste to most of the American existance.  Again, we are not surprised, as this potential disaster is also well-known.

It was Number 3 that most caught my attention…an earthquake.  To be more specific, an earthquake in the Midwest.  Earthquakes in this area aren’t nearly as famous as those occurring around the Pacific Rim and the corresponding Ring of Fire, because they’re so rare.  But when the bigger ones hit, they pack a powerful wallop.

The most famous of the “Midwest” quakes on record was a series of temblors that culminated in a tremendous quake in February of 1812.  Centered over southeast Missouri, northeast Arkansas, and western Tennessee, the biggest ones were felt over a 1,000,000 square miles and damage was recorded as far away as Maine.

But it all began 200 years ago today…December 16, 1811.

At 2:15 in the morning, people along the New Madrid Fault were thrown from their beds by a tremendous rumbling.  They scrambled out of their crumbling homes and got a night-time view of the apocalypse, as the landscape heaved and bucked like a drunken man, under the influence of a quake that would have registered close to 8.0 on the Richter Scale.  There were sand blows and landslides, soil liquifaction and, to hear the locals tell it, a brief reversal of the mighty Mississippi River.

Six hours later, another quake similar in scope struck the region again.  Too large to be an aftershock, it classifies as its own separate quake.  People all over the region were terrified, looking heaven-ward and awaiting the arrival of the Four Horsemen.  Damage was extensive, but deaths relatively light because the population was sparse.

For many years, scientists believed that major earthquakes struck along the New Madrid Fault every couple of hundred years.  And guess what?…we’re at exactly 200 years today.  But seismic activity along the fault has dwindled to a relative handful of very small shakers each year.  I read somewhere that geologists think the fault might be seizing up to a point where quakes no longer occur.

But for the millions of residents that live in St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Chicago, and other large cities in the region, there is that small concern.  I live in central Iowa, several hundred miles from the fault, but I think about it all the time.  Homes in the Midwest are built with tornadoes (and in recent years, flooding) in mind, not earthquakes.

A repeat of the quakes that began two centuries ago would be cataclysmic.

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It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and while it may not carry the same weight as Christmas Eve, it’s reason enough to keep things brief.

For President James Madison, 1814 had not been a particularly kind year.  The same could be said for most of the fledgling Union over which Madison served as Commander-in-Chief.  The war with Britain (the second of Madison’s life when you consider the War of Independence) was not going very well.  The nation’s capital was no longer smoking, but it was a ruin thanks to British torches.  War Secretary Armstrong had been summarily sacked by an irate Madison.

Politics was rearing its ugly head, with New England governors refusing to allow their state militias to be used for national defense.  The ballot box had not been Madison’s friend, either.  Mid-term elections had seen the Federalist Party, largely marginalized since John Adams left office, make significant gains.

Then there were the British who, in addition to the war itself, were working hard to sway the New England states to break away from the southern states (especially those pesky Virginians) and reestablish ties to the mother country.  Citizens were smuggling goods to the enemy and colluding with them.

And to add injury to all the insult, Madison was ill again.  The heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.’s summer and fall never agreed with the President.  He often spent much of that time back at home.  But this year had been different, and Madison was paying a physical price.

On November 23, 1814, the news got worse.  Vice President Elbridge Gerry had died of a lung hemorrhage while riding in his carriage to the Senate.  Gerry had been a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.  And while he initially voted against the Constitution, he eventually became a strong supporter.  During his time as the governor of Massachusetts, he supported a redistricting bill that not only took on his name (gerrymandering), but also cost him re-election.  And now he was gone.

The rejuvenated Federalists smelled blood.  One of them would write, “If Mr. President Madison would resign now that Mr. Gerry is no more, a president of the Senate might be chosen, who would . . . do honor to the nation.”

Gerry’s death had transformed James Madison from the President to a Federalist target.

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It’s a hot, steamy, summer Sunday night.  There really aren’t any clouds to speak of, but I think if I went out and shouted loud enough, I could trigger storms.  It feels like one of those days where something bad weather-wise could happen at any time, but so far, nothing.

July 4th hasn’t always been a good day for Presidents.  We know that because we’ve discussed it on a couple of occasions.  Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe all died on this day.  And our 12th President, Zachary Taylor, overdressed for the 4th of July celebrations (wearing a heavy black suit), got overheated, and then tried to cool himself by over-consuming iced milk and cold cherries.  He apparently shocked his system to the point of death, which took him five days later in a bout of gastroenteritis.

And so Vice President Millard Fillmore became our nation’s 13th President on July 10, 1850.  Unfortunately, I know very little about Fillmore (my study of the Presidents is currently at #5…James Monroe).  Well, here’s what I know…

Fillmore was a member of the Whig Party and was the last Whig President.  Of course, the mid-19th century was dominated by the issue of slavery, and Fillmore came down squarely in the middle of the issue.  He was against it personally, but also supported slavery measures for the sake of the South.  My eyebrows are always raised when I come across this kind of logic, and I wonder what Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms would have to say about it (Fillmore’s dual stance on slavery, not my raised eyebrows).

Anyways, that’s pretty much what I know…so not very much.

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Happy Independence Day!!

Back in 2008, we took this day to reflect on the lives of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  It seems so completely appropriate that both these Founders, so intertwined with the founding of this great nation, died as the last surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1826…the country’s 50th anniversary.

John Adams’ words on that last day (and maybe the last words he spoke before his death) were, “It is a great day.  It is a good day.” 

But as we know, Adams and Jefferson weren’t the only Presidents to call this day their last.  There is another.  And in fact, he’s also a Founding Father.  The last Founding Father.  The last President to live and serve his not-yet-formed country during her first, and greatest, hour of need.  I speak of President James Monroe.

The fifth President died on July 4, 1831.  Like Jefferson before him, he died essentially broke.  Early 19th-century politicians didn’t earn anything like their 21st-century counterparts, and Monroe’s long public service had left him with a lot of debt.  Eventually, he would be forced to sell most of his property and belongings to clear his financial name.

And James Monroe died broken.  Less than two years before, his wife (and lifelong partner) Elizabeth had died.  In his grief, Monroe became irrational to the point of refusing to leave her burial vault, saying he would wait there to die and rejoin his wife.  When he returned home, he burned all the correspondance he had with her.  Letters, papers, diaries…everything.  So unlike John Adams and his wife Abigail, an incredible treasure trove of early-American documentation went up in fireplace smoke.

But Monroe, like the four Presidents before him, laid the foundation for all who would follow.  In his new biography of Monroe, Harlow Giles Unger closes his book writing, “Across the nation, Americans in every town and city mourned the man who had fought for liberty in the Revolution, opened the West, and expanded the nation’s boundaries ‘from sea to shining sea.’  He had led his people into an era of unprecendented prosperity and ‘good feelings’…”

John Quincy Adams, the former President turned Congressman, offered up the following:  “…look at the map of United North America, as it was . . . in 1783.  Compare it with the map of that same Empire as it is now. . . .  The change, more than of any other man, living or dead, was the work of James Monroe.”

Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe.  While it’s true that all three died on this day, we should celebrate their lives as foundational to all the good things this nation has become.  They were not perfect men, nor do we necessarily agree with everything they wrote or said or did.  But these men, and Monroe in particular, loved their country as much as the hundreds of thousands of men who have died on battlefields (both here and abroad) defending the freedoms these men brought to America.

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President Andrew Jackson didn’t hate all banks, just one of them.  The problem was that the one bank he hated was the Second Bank of the United States, which was essentially the country’s Central Bank.  Of course, “Second” Bank implies there was a “First” Bank.  If you figured as much, you’re spot-on right.

The First Bank of the United States had been created in February of 1791 (we briefly mentioned it) by President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton.  Its 20-year charter had expired in 1811, but had been renewed in 1816 (as the Second Bank) with another 20-year charter.

And President Jackson wanted nothing to do with it.  He believed it was a tool of wealthy businessmen to oppress common people.  He also thought that, due to his recent election to a second term, the people had given him a mandate to shut down the Bank.  But even more than that, he believed the Second Bank was a threat to the existence of the Republic…one could almost say to the point of obsession.

In his biography of the President, Jon Meachem recounts a conversation Jackson had with a minister as they sailed aboard a steamship to Staten Island in June of 1833.  Jackson said, “What a country God has given us!  How thankful we ought to be that God has given us such a country to live in. … We have the best country, and the best institutions in the world.  No people have so much to be grateful for as we.  But ah!  My reverend friend, there is one thing that I fear will yet sap the foundation of our liberty – that monster institution, the Bank of the United States!  Its existence is incompatible with liberty.  One of the two must fall – the bank or our free institutions.”

The President’s plan was take the country’s deposits out of the “big-B” Bank and deposit them in various “little-B” banks.  There was just one little issue…Treasury Secretary William Duane.  Having just been appointed to the position on June 1st, he was the guy who, by law, was empowered to decide what to do with the public funds.  And from day 1, the screws were put to him to fall in line with Jackson’s wishes.  Of course, those in favor of the Bank knew the rules as well, and they pushed Duane just as hard from the other side.

William Duane then spent time in the Constitution, and came away believing that the real authority over the Bank lay with Congress, and not the President.  Meachem, almost humorously I think, writes, “He was still thinking in pre-Jacksonian terms about the role of the President.”  The President responded predictably to Duane, “My object, sir, is to save the country, and it will be lost if we permit it to exist.”

And on September 10, 1833, President Jackson took action on his own.  He received word that there were numerous good banks ready to take on the funds removed from the Bank.  And so he announced to his Cabinet that the government would no longer use the Second Bank of the United States.

President Jackson had just thrown down the gauntlet in the Bank War.

Recommended Reading:  American Lion

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I’ll keep it brief this evening, because the subject of  Today’s History Lesson is the briefest of its kind.

William Henry Harrison is best known as the President who served the shortest term.  Taking the Oath of Office on March 4, 1841, he remained in office for just 31 days, before dying from pneumonia and septicemia on April 4, 1841.

But there’s more that makes him unique.

William Henry Harrison was the first President to die while serving in office.  He was the last President born (in 1773) before the American Revolution began in 1776.  He was the oldest elected President, taking office at 68 years of age, and holding that distinction until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 at age 69.

Harrison was the first candidate from the relatively short-lived Whig Party to be elected to the nation’s highest office and just one of two Whig Presidents elected, the other being Zachary Taylor.  Incidentally, Taylor also died in office just 9 years later.

Harrison’s Inagural Address was the longest of any President, running nearly two hours in length.  His agenda, one of undoing much of what was done by his two predecessors (Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren), was extensive.  But the only item accomplished in this shortest of terms involved calling a special session of Congress, an order he didn’t live long enough to see.

And 1841 would be one of only two years that would see three Presidents serve in its duration (van Buren, Harrison, and John Tyler).  The other was 1881, when Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur each held office.

So, while William Henry Harrison served the shortest Presidential term, there really is no shortage of interesting tidbits surrounding him.

Recommended Reading: Presidents – All You Need to Know

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Wow!  I can’t believe it’s been a week.  There have been a lot of things happening and Today’s History Lesson, unfortunately, hasn’t been one of them.  Hopefully, I won’t go a week between postings again.  Let’s see if we can’t get back into the swing of things.

On February 9, 1825, John Quincy Adams was elected the 6th President of the United States.  Now right away, you should notice that U.S. Presidents are normally chosen during the November elections, so something’s out of place.  There was an election, but it didn’t end with any one candidate garnering a majority of the available Electoral Votes.  Voting was split between Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.

What makes this result a little more interesting is that all four candidates were from the same party.  In fact, they were from the only party.  The Federalist Party, the party of Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams, and John Quincy himself, had collapsed some years before, leaving just the Democratic-Republican party.  So it might be said that, during this period of time, the U.S. was blessed (if that’s the right word) with a one-party system, which probably made the conventions unworthy of TV coverage.

Anyways, while the “popular vote” was not really tallied in the 1824 election like it is now, Andrew Jackson was the clear winner, collecting more than 40% of the votes to Adams’ 31%.  He also had 99 Electoral Votes under his name, more than Adams’ 84.

But 131 Electoral Votes were required and so, as stipulated by the Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment, the election issue was passed to the House of Representatives.  Clay, who finished 4th in the voting, was ineligible.  Crawford, having garnered 3rd place despite suffering a massive stroke way back in 1823, was deemed unfit.  So it came down to Adams and Jackson.

Clay’s position as House Speaker gave him pretty heavy influence in the proceedings, and he carried with him a strong personal dislike for Andrew Jackson.  Furthermore, his own policies aligned more closely with those of Adams, so all his support was thrown to John Quincy, who carried the day and was named President on the first ballot.

Then Adams chose Henry Clay as his Secretary of State, and the fur began to fly.  An outraged Jackson accused the two of collusion, and the collapse of the one-party system had begun.  As it would turn out, Adams’ Presidency was much like his father’s.  Both men were of unquestioned integrity, but both lacked to political savvy to garner support in Washington, both allowed dissension to remain in their Cabinets, and both did little to promote themselves for re-election.

John Quincy Adams would be soundly trounced by Andrew Jackson four years later.  And by then, the battle lines in the Democratic-Republican Party had been drawn, with Jackson taking the “Democrat” side, and Adams the “Republican”.

The two-party system was back in American politics…this time to stay.

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