Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Because of law and precedent, the process following upon the vacancy of the office of the President is fairly well understood.  But that was not always the case.  In fact, when the first vacancy occurred, when William Henry Harrison died in 1841, there was widespread confusion.

Harrison had only been president for thirty days when he died on April 4. John Tyler, who was an after-though as vice president, was only nominally a member of the late president’s Whig party.  Despite the Constitution’s directive on presidential succession in Article II, Tyler’s legitimacy as president was questioned.

Tyler, who immediately set about on his course, was derided as “His Accidency” or “Acting President.” A constitutional crisis soon developed when all members of the Cabinet, except Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned over policy and political disagreements.

Thirty years ago, I purchased an interesting letter written by Richard Rush, and today it hangs in my office.  The letter was written on this day, July 26, but in 1841.  Rush was the son of the founder Benjamin Rush, but was notable in his own right:  U.S. secretary of the treasury, attorney general, minister to England and France, and acting secretary of state.

Rush writes of the political machinations, “I can tell you nothing about our public affairs that the newspapers do not give you.  There are rumors of approaching changes in the cabinet at Washington and of new combinations of party there which time will determine the truth or the falsity of it.”

In September, five of the six cabinet members resigned; there were much fewer departments at the time.  The following year, the Whigs made an abortive effort to impeach a president elected on their party’s ticket.  Tyler tried to win re-election in 1844 on a new party, the Democratic-Republican, but the effort failed.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

William W. Scranton: Born 100 Years Ago

William W. Scranton, a former governor of Pennsylvania and one of the now extinct moderate national Republicans, would have been 100 years old today.  He died in 2013.  Scranton, a rising political star less than two years into his governorship, unsuccessfully challenged Barry Goldwater for the 1964 presidential nomination.

Scranton was young, attractive, wealthy and had an appealing family.  As a one-term congressman, 1961-1963, he voted for some of JFK’s social programs.  The same age as the president, he was sometimes called a “Kennedy Republican.” 

Prohibited by the then state constitution to one term, Scranton left elective politics in 1967.  He subsequently served as chair of the commission investigating Kent State and campus unrest in 1970, which issued the “Scranton Report,” and also was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  I remember when he entertained United Nations delegates at his home near Scranton, Pennsylvania.  He also took on troubleshooting roles for several presidents.

Although his bid against Goldwater was doomed from the outset, he was probably the only serious presidential aspirant from Pennsylvania in the past century.  Bill Scranton believed in public service and was committed to his hometown, where his family had deep political and economic roots to the northeastern Pennsylvania city that they helped found

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Northern Virginia Prison Housed Political Activists

This past weekend I visited the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the former home of the Lorton Reformatory, in Northern Virginia.  Originally opened in 1910, it is now a series of art galleries and working studios.

The artwork and various special programs that are offered by the nonprofit which runs the cultural center is impressive, but so too is the history of the prison, which closed sixteen years ago.  In addition to hardened criminals, it also housed political protesters such as Norman Mailer, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Noam Chomsky.  Mailer describes his brief incarceration there in “The Armies of the Night.” 

The grounds also housed a Nike missile site complete with nuclear warheads.   In fact, the first Nike site was the first in the nation (1954)—part of the Washington, D.C., defense program at the height of the Cold War.

But perhaps the most interesting story of the prison was the incarceration of suffragists in 1917.  Known as the Silent Sentinel, they protested outside the White House in 1917.  Among those imprisoned for their activism were Alice Paul and twenty-year-old Dorothy Day.  Some women began a hunger strike there and were force fed by order of the warden.  This is captured in the movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” a 2004 movie featuring Hilary Swank as Alice Paul.

Paul, who had been given a jail house door pendent for an earlier political imprisonment, had 81 pins created for these women protesters.  The arts center museum sells a copy.

The 19th amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920.


Saturday, May 27, 2017


There has been a massive number of books written about John F. Kennedy, and more have been released during this centennial year.  As the nation celebrates his 100th birthday on May 29, 2017, I have compiled a list, which in my opinion, are the one hundred best books by or about the late president. This is obviously a subjective list although many are essential works. Certainly all these books are worthy of consideration. Hopefully, this will be a valuable checklist for those interested in immersing themselves in the life and times of the nation's thirty-fifth president.

Books by John F. Kennedy
As We Remember Joe
Why England Slept
Prelude to Leadership: The Post-War Diary of John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage
The Strategy of Peace
The Public Papers of John F. Kennedy (3 vols.)
The Burden and the Glory (posthumous)
A Nation of Immigrants (posthumous)

Biographies of John F. Kennedy
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House
Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power
Ted Sorensen, Kennedy
Joan and Clay Blair, Jr., The Search for J.F.K
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
Alan Brinkley, John F. Kennedy

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ernest Hemingway and Numismatics

It has been 55 years since the death of Ernest Hemingway, one of the great writers of the twentieth century. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway, suffering from serious physical and mental problems, committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho.
I have been studying Hemingway in connection with other research.  In the process, I have come across several coins and medals that honor him and well as some other numismatist connections. Cuba, where the author lived for twenty years and had ties for much longer, has issued four Hemingway coins. 

Hemingway loved Cuba and the Cuban people, and he was treated as a celebrity.  He had a grim view of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgenico Batista, and was hopeful that Fidel Castro would improve the lot of the Cubans.  Castro later seized Hemingway’s house, nine miles outside of Havana, and today it is a shrine owned by the government.

Three of the Cuban coins were issued in 1982:  a silver five-peso with Hemingway’s image on the obverse along with his life dates; a five-peso which paid tribute to his Nobel Prize and The Old Man and the Sea novel (there is an image of a fisherman, presumably “Santiago,” in the small boat on the reverse); and another five-peso coin with Hemingway’s fishing boat, Pilar, on the reverse.

The fourth, and perhaps the most interesting, coin is a 2010 Cuban five-peso copper with Hemingway and Castro on the reverse.  It commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the only meeting between the two men.  Castro participated in Hemingway’s marlin fishing tournament, and won. 

Elsewhere in the region, Jamaica issue a seven-coin proof set in 1994, and one of the coins was a five-dollar Hemingway coin with the image of the author and the fisherman on a boat in the water.

There also is a spare, not very attractive Hemingway piece that was issued as an unofficial coin in Croatia.  A website says it was “being used as a ‘voucher’ for consumption.”  The 47-mm medal has a crude image of Hemingway on the obverse and an “H” on the reverse.  And a gold-plated commemorative (non-denominated) Cook Islands coin featuring Hemingway in his iconic bulky turtleneck sweater was issued in 2005.

In the United States, the Franklin Mint issued a medal of Hemingway as part of its Longines Symphonette Society “Great American Triumphs” series.  It was one of a set of sixty 39-mm silver medals released in the early 1970s.  Apparently, there also is a bronze variant.

But for me the most noteworthy numismatic item of Hemingway is an 81-mm bronze medal produced by the French-Spanish medalist Andre Belo.  It has an obverse portrait of Hemingway and an impressionistic account of Santiago, the old fisherman, struggling to reel in a marlin on the reverse.  The legend in lower-case letters:  “le vieil homme et la mer” [the old man and the sea].

A copy of this medal sits in my office, sometimes offering inspiration for writing.  Although certainly not rare, it is one of my favorite medals. It was issued in 1976 by the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint).
Among other works by Belo, who was born in 1908, are medals of composer Henri Sauguet, literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve, musician Erik Satie and writer George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin)--all French--as well as “The Afternoon of a Faun.”

There are some other interesting items related to Hemingway and numismatics.  He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and donated his gold medal to a provincial Cuban Catholic church.  The medal was stolen in the 1980s, but was recovered and is now closely held by the Catholic Church.  When the Nobel Prize of Dr. James Watson, a distinguished scientist but not as famous as Hemingway, came up for auction in 2015, it was sold for $4.1 million.

There is no evidence that I know of that Hemingway’s interest in money extended beyond spending it freely.  However, there are two items of note.  As reported by Ron Abler in The E-Sylum in 2012, a 1934 Lincoln Head cent is preserved at the author’s home in Key West, a testament to his hectoring his second wife about her free spending:

And in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the University of Texas at Austin Henry R. Ransom Center there are coins as well as European currency, presumably money Hem or family members simply accumulated.

There is at least one coin allusion in Hemingway’s writing.  In A Moveable Feast he described a girl as only he could:  “She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin.”

Finally, on Hemingway’s grave in Idaho, tourists leave coins, mostly pennies.  While this is probably a simple spur-of-the-moment thing, leaving coins on graves actually goes back to ancient Greek mythology; the money would be used to help pay for ferry service on the River Styx in the afterlife.  Hemingway probably would have liked that idea.

[This article first appeared in the September 20, 2016 issue of Numismatic News.]