Thursday, November 15, 2018

Articles of Confederation Approved, 1777

There will be little fanfare but today marks the anniversary of the congressional approval of the new United States government under the Articles of Confederation in 1777. The seat of the government was then in York, Pennsylvania, and that’s where the document was drafted and approved.  It was quickly sent to the thirteen states for ratification, which took place over a little more than three years.

Responding to the concerns over what they considered the tyrannical authority of the King George III, these first framers wanted to craft a government with little national authority and strong state autonomy.  In fact, there wasn’t even national coinage or currency. 

There were some achievements with this form of government, but its decentralized nature doomed it to failure.  After some preliminary discussions at Mount Vernon and Annapolis, a call went out for a constitutional convention in Philadelphia to revise the instrument of government.  Of course, this new assembly completely scrapped the existing framework and drafted the more responsive and enduring Constitution. 

Interestingly, under the Articles, ten men served as head of the government during a seven-year period, presiding over the Congress but also called “President of the United States.”  Thus, our first president was Samuel Huntington of Connecticut.  Alas, as with the Articles of Confederation, President Huntington had little power. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Peacemakers Flock to Paris

When the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the euphoria quickly moved toward the post-war settlement.  Paris became the hub of the world as leaders and hangers-on flocked there, pressing concerns and special interests.  The Big Four, the leaders of the United States, England, France, and Italy, would have the pivotal role in drafting the Treaty of Versailles. 

But there was scores of others, including Winston Churchill, seeking to rebuild his reputation and promote the interests of the British Empire; T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, with special interests related to the Middle East; and Ho Chi Minh, trying to get support for the end of colonialism in Indochina.

Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris to a tumultuous welcome on December 16.  The articulator of the Fourteen Points, his views would clash with Old World statesmen such as French premier Georges Clemenceau. Wilson, then sixty-two-years old, would be entering the last and most significant periods of his life:  seeming triumph in Paris, an inability to compromise and get the Treaty of Versailles ratified in the U.S. Senate, and his debilitating stroke.

While the war which lasted four years—much less for the United States—was a significant and tragic event, the post-war settlement had profound impacts.  Not only did the “war to end all wars” not prevent a far greater conflagration twenty years later, decisions were made and boundaries were drawn which affect us one hundred years later, often to our detriment.

This image, meant to portray the Versailles confrees on June 28, 1919, is entitled “The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors" and was painted by Irish-born artist Sir William Orpen.  Orpen had painted scenes of World War I.  By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum London,, Public Domain,

Friday, November 9, 2018

President-elect Kennedy Meets the Press

I was only ten years old, but I remember the post-election remarks given by John F. Kennedy on television on this day in 1960.  The president-elect was driven through a crowd in a white Lincoln Continental from Hyannis Port to the nearby National Guard Armory in Hyannis.  The reporters there gave him a standing ovation before he read congratulatory telegrams from Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, thanked supporters, gave a brief acceptance speech, and ended by saying, “and now my wife and I prepare for a new administration and a new baby.”  John F. Kennedy, Jr., was born two weeks later.

This session would be JFK’s first as he transitioned from candidate to president.  Over the course of his 1,036-day presidency, he held sixty-four news conferences (about one every two weeks) at which he was well prepared and witty.  The typical venue was the cavernous auditorium at the State Department. 

Kennedy, who was once briefly a reporter himself (Hearst), had a good relationship with the press though—as with all presidents—it could be testy.  He understood the role of the media in American society. 

I have been by the historic armory several times over the years.  I am struck by how small the building is; it seemed enormous to me on television fifty-eight years ago.  Unfortunately, the armory has fallen into disrepair and is largely abandoned, but apparently there are efforts underway to rehabilitate it.  I certainly hope so.

Here is a photograph of the armory that I took earlier this year.

Monday, November 5, 2018

FDR, Harry Truman, and the 1940 Election

The other day I posted a story about the come-from-behind success of Harry Truman in 1948.  Today I have a story about the presidential election of 1940 in which FDR officially broke the third-term barrier.  Although the victory was not nearly as impressive as that of four years earlier, Roosevelt defeated dark horse Republican candidate Wendell Willkie.  That victory was seventy-eight years ago today.

Roosevelt’s unprecedented run caused concern among both Republicans and Democrats; among the latter were would-be successors who had patiently waited their turn for the presidency but were preempted by the incumbent.  These included former ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Democratic chairman James A. Farley, and Vice President John Nance Garner.

Willkie, a utility company executive, appeared virtually out of nowhere to defeat better-known Republican leaders such as Thomas E. Dewey and Robert A. Taft for the nomination.  Willkie’s performance was better than of Alf Landon’s four years earlier, but he still lost by about five million votes and by very wide margin in the Electoral College.

Here is a colorful campaign poster for the Democratic ticket in Missouri.  What is especially notable—and which prompted me to purchase it—is that four years hence Truman would again be appearing on the party ticket with FDR, but this time as his vice-presidential running mate.
Roosevelt defeated Midwesterner Willkie by 85,000 votes in Missouri and captured its fifteen electoral votes.  His coattails were strong enough to push Truman on to reelection.  Elected to the Senate in 1934, Truman barely survived the Democratic primary this year because of his ties to the corrupt Pendergast machine.  In the general election he won by a less than 2.5 percentage points. 

But that weren’t enough to pull gubernatorial candidate Larry McDaniel over the finish line; McDaniel lost by 3,600 votes (out of 1.8 million).  Frank G. Harris, who had been lieutenant governor since 1933, was reelected and died in office four years later. There was obviously some ticket splitting going on in Missouri that year.

As an aside this cardboard political poster demonstrates that some of the campaign material of this time had a second life.  On the back side is a rancher/small businessperson’s detailed budget for May 1, 1941.  Telephone: four dollars.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

JFK on Broadway

I discovered an interesting confluence of my interests in the mail yesterday.  I received the latest catalog from the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, the Civil War-themed mecca in Chicago.  Occasionally there are items offered which extend into the twentieth century, and that’s what caught my eye.

I found a John F. Kennedy autographed copy of the Broadway Playbill for “The Best Man.”  This play, written by Gore Vidal, is one of my favorites:  I have seen the movie starring Henry Fonda many times and attended the revival on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in 2012, with the stage and even the balcony decked out as a political convention.

The story is about an idealistic but flawed presidential candidate doing battle with a charismatic, media-savvy but essentially unprincipled rival for the presidential nomination. The former is an Adlai Stevenson-like character and the latter is an amalgam of JFK, Nixon and even Joe McCarthy. 

The Playbill featured is for the original Broadway drama, which was performed in 1960.  President-elect Kennedy attended a performance on December 6, one month after the election.  According to this write-up, he sat with Vidal, a person he disliked.  Surely Kennedy saw the unflattering parallel to himself.

The price of the booklet, $3,850, is a bit high for me, but I learned two things from the description. First, I pinpointed the date Kennedy saw the play.   And, second, it mentions that he was originally scheduled to see “Camelot” that night.  Of course, we all know the significance of that play. 

Coincidentally, the performance that night was three years to the day that the issue of Life Magazine was published—shortly after the president’s death—with a cover story equating Camelot with the Kennedy years.  It was the first public mention and reflected an interview a week before between Jackie Kennedy and journalist Teddy White, the author of the article.

The photograph here is of the Playbill for the 2012 performance.  It starred James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, and Candice Bergen.  Stage Door Johnnies swarmed Jones, who plays a dying president, after the show.