Tag Archives: Presidents

A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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A “Presidential Polka” in Salem

For Presidents’ Day, I’m focusing on one of the shortest presidential visits in Salem history: President Polk’s breezy visit on July 5, 1847 which seems to have clocked in at (well) under in an hour. There are much more notable (and longer) stopovers by Presidents Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, and both Presidents Taft and Coolidge visited Salem often while they summered nearby, but I thought Polk’s pitstop might shed some light on the popularity of abolitionism here in Salem in the antebellum era. There was an interesting reaction to my post last week on my slavery mapping project: it was shared on a few facebook pages and rather than commenting on the specific issue of slaveholding in pre-revolutionary Salem, there were references to the city’s active abolitionist community nearly a century later, as if that somehow compensated for the sins of the past. I”ve heard this sentiment from students too, but my colleagues seem a bit more reserved about the popular appeal of the anti-slavery movement. I actually don’t seek to judge the past by ahistorical standards; I’m more interested in uncovering as much of the truth as possible. So what does the response of Salem’s citizens to the arrival of President Polk on the day after the Fourth of July in the summer of 1847 tell us?

Polk 1844

blog_LansdowneSo interesting that this 1844 Polk Print (Library of Congress) mirrors the “Landsdowne” Portrait of George Washington from 1796: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The historical assessment of Polk’s presidency has traditionally focused on his successful policies of westward expansion, including the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, increasing the territory of the United States dramatically and extending its boundaries to the Pacific. He was a man who lived up to his promises, but expansion at this time cannot be viewed apart from the increasingly-intense debate over the expansion of slavery, and Polk was a slave owner not only by inheritance, but also by “investment”. The story of Elias Polk, the “faithful slave” who served the President in the White House, seems to have been utilized to portray Polk as a paternalistic slave owner, but a recent study characterizes him as far more “acquisitive” and entrepreneurial, holding “the constricted views of a Tennessee slavemaster.”  This is certainly how the most fervent of northern abolitionists saw Polk, but I’m not sure if they speak for the majority of the population.

Abolitionist MapsTwo abolitionist “Moral Maps” which illustrate fears of the spread of slavery in the United States and North America, 1847-1854, Cornell and Yale University Libraries.

The nation was at war when the President visited Salem in the summer of 1847, and the reports of his visit illustrate the divisions that were becoming ever-apparent: in side-by-side columns in the Salem Observer for July 10, 1847 we can read a stinging indictment by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an account of the President’s reception in Salem, which was “kind and hospitable” by his own estimation. It’s quite a contrast! The Anti-Slavery Society’s condemnation takes the form of a letter addressed to the president in which he is called out (You are a slaveholder. Men, women, and children are by you held in slavery—recorded in your ledger as chattels personal—worked like brutes, without wages or stipulation, under the lash of a driver, and fraudulently and tyrannically deprived of all their just earnings), compared unfavorably to the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” and called upon to emancipate his slaves immediately. In the next column, the President is welcomed to Salem with full “civic and military honors” and a “cavalcade” (before motorcades there were cavalcades) through its “ancient” crowd-lined streets. There are conflicting assessments of Polk’s visit to Salem, but all the papers agree it was a hastily-put-together affair, as the city authorities got word of the President’s arrival only the night before.

Polk Reception Salem Register.jpgSalem Register, July 5, 1847

Here you can see the city scrambling: Boston, Lowell, Concord, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine were presidential stops announced ahead of time, but the President seems to have added stops in Portsmouth, Newburyport, Salem and Lynn at the very last minute as he made his way back to Washington. The program announced above was pretty much how it came off, but additional details emerge in the reporting: the President’s train arrived at the Beverly Depot at 2:55 and according to the Salem Gazette, “Mr. Polk refused to leave the cars in Beverly unless he could be assured that he should not be detained more than 15 minutes in Salem,” and consequently a “gallopade” ensued through the city which was characterized as both “ludicrous” and farcical” by both the Salem and Boston papers. The Salem Register calls Polk’s visit to Salem “a Grand Presidential Polka……affording a vast fount of amusement to the lovers of the ludicrous.” There was a big crush to see “the man who made the war, but “the Comet-like flight of the Head of the Nation through the City of Peace beggars description.” [Yes, Salem was indeed referred to as the City of Peace before it became Witch City: better, no?] He came and went “like a Flash………with the President” (in an elegant barouche driven by six black horses) “bobbing his uncovered head, now this way, and now that, as a handkerchief flustered from some window, or a cheer came up from a band of his adherents, posted on some corner.” I’m not sure if this depiction has a larger message of criticism aimed at the President beyond that of the short shrift he gave Salem, and none of the reports of this “Presidential Polka” enable us to “read” the crowd: besides the brevity of this presidential visit, everyone also seems to agree that the “most pleasing part” of the whole affair was the sight of the schoolchildren of Salem aligned along Chestnut Street. As the Salem schools had been desegregated three years before, I’m assuming (and hoping) that there were African-American students in the ranks.

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The People’s Choice? A Polk campaign ribbon from 1844, Smithsonian Institution.


The Last Summer of White Court

The century-old Classical Revival mansion in nearby Swampscott which served as the “Summer White House” for Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge in 1925 is not long for this world, as just last week the Swampscott Historical Commission agreed to reduce the requisite demolition delay ordinance period to just 90 days in return for its purchasers’ agreement to salvage and reproduce significant architectural elements as they transform the estate into 18 condominiums. Looking at all of the old photographs of White Court, which was designed by architect Arthur Little and built near his family’s summer home on Little’s Point, “reproduction” seems unlikely; I can’t speak to salvage. In any case, the mansion will be demolished, and along with it will go a material reminder and symbol of a notable era in Swampscott’s history, a golden era when the residence of the President drew many eyes to this seaside town.

White Court 1900

White Court Arrival

Coolidge firstWhite Court in 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress; The arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court in Swampscott in June of 1925, and the pair with one of their white collies (either Rob Roy or Prudence Prim ) at the estate during the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Alton H. Blackington Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1963.

The Coolidges were welcomed warmly and seen about Swampscott and surrounding towns occasionally: according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation blog, the President worked from an office in Lynn, sailed on the presidential yacht Mayflower docked in Marblehead, and attended services with Mrs. Coolidge every Sunday at the Salem Tabernacle Congregational Church. There was not a lot of entertaining, as the Coolidges had lost their sixteen-year-old younger son, Calvin Jr., just a year previously. There were many strolls around the six-acre seaside property, white collie alongside, apparently: we only get to see one such stroll, right after the Coolidges arrive when the press were clearly on hand to see them settled into their summer home. Their smiles come and go; this is a dutiful walk—I’d like to see them on a more casual stroll but I’m glad the photographers were not enabled to intrude for too long. We have many photographs of their activities off the estate however: this was a well-documented presidential vacation!

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White Court SalemLeslie Jones photographs of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court, Swampscott, 1925, Boston Public Library; the Coolidges attend the Tabernacle Church in Salem, July 1925, Blackington Collection, University of Massachusetts.

I felt like I was intruding yesterday morning when I drove over to Little’s Point to see the condemned mansion, which was very much in the midst of a construction zone. It didn’t seem possible to walk down its long entry lane (which was also marked private) to snap a photograph, so I have no “now” to contrast with all of my “then”. The last time I was on the premises was a couple of years ago, when the mansion was the main building of Marian Court College, a Catholic commuter college operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015. There were institutional additions to its exterior, and I did not see the interior, but the core of the building looked pretty much the same as it did in that spotlight summer of 1925. But apparently its foundation has deteriorated beyond repair, and so White Court must cease to exist, come September.

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White Court Leslie Jones BPL The drawing room of White Court in its residential era, Historic New England; an exterior view by Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library.

Appendix: Thanks to Jonathan for informing me that White Court was the site of Northshore Magazine’s “Best of the North Shore” awards just last year: great photographs of the mansion below and more here. Also, in return for their reduced demolition delay period, the developers have agree to document the house thoroughly, so we will (at least) be able to see detailed architectural photographs at some point.

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Ghosts of Presidents Past

When a ghost appears, you know that something is not right: restless spirits always have a mission. Sometimes it is inspiration; sometime censure, but one always has to take notice. The relationship between the dead and the living depends on the historical context but in general, the former are often demanding something from the latter: prayers, respect, fortitude, compensation, correction. Medieval people were expected to compensate, in forms of religious ritual, for the premature, unexpected, and “bad” deaths of their dearly departed, while modern people are generally expected to learn from the spectres that haunt them, in one way or another: Dickens’ Christmas ghosts being prime examples. And then there are political ghosts, who have vast powers of assessment and judgement and can be utilized as a supreme moral compass: I don’t think it will be long before we see some of these spectral appearances! Looking through some digitized periodicals in preparation for my Presidents’ Day post last week, first very casually and then more intently, I came across quite a few presidential ghosts: Presidents Washington and Lincoln are clearly the most powerful (and summoned) apparitions, but they were not the only spirits roused from the dead because of compelling earthly concerns. In this first image from Punch (a periodical which utilizes ghosts to put forth its point of view fairly often) King George III asks George Washington what he thinks of his “fine republic” now (1863–in the midst of the Civil War), to which the President can only respond “humph!”.

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Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1863.

This is an unusual presidential ghost sighting; usually we do not go to “Spirit-Land” (which appears to be populated with jellyfish as well as prominent people), spirits descend down to our realm. Much more common are these pair of cartoons commenting on the contentious election of 1884 between two scandal-ridden candidates: James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland: The Honor of our Country in Danger (again, Puck) and The Honor of our Country Maintained (George Yost Coffin, “respectfully adapted” from the Puck cartoon). The assembled ghostly presidents Washington, Lincoln and Garfield (recently assassinated so at the height of his power) are clearly the monitors of “honor”, before and after the election. The narrow winner of this contest, Grover Cleveland, clearly needs all the spiritual guidance he can get, as the ghosts of his predecessors appear regularly throughout his term(s).

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“Honor” cartoons relating to the presidential election of 1884, Library of Congress;  “The Lesson of the Past”, Puck, July 1887: Lincoln inspires Cleveland to assert “I will not fail”.

Theodore Roosevelt inspires lots of ghostly visitations too, including a whole entourage of past presidents in Puck’s July 1910 cover cartoon: “Just Luck”. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Jackson wonder how did we ever run the country without him? while observing an industrious Teddy by the light of the moon. A couple of years later, however, there is a more censorious visitation by Washington when Roosevelt rescinded his pledge not to run for a third term in 1912. This Washington looks positively Dickensian!

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Just LuckcoverPuck, July, 1910; “Anti-Third-Term Principle” cartoon by Clifford Berryman, 1912, U.S. National Archives.

War-time presidents, or those on the verge of war, need lots of encouragement (as do nations), so the ultimate war-time president, Abraham Lincoln, appears behind Woodrow Wilson on the eve of World War I, and several decades later the latter returns the favor for Franklin Roosevelt. In the interim, we have a rare sighting of Warren G. Harding, wishing his successor Calvin Coolidge “Good Bye and Good Luck” and encouraging him to “write his own book”. This strikes me as a bit of over-reach for this device: did we really need to summon the ghost of Warren G. Harding?

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Ghostly back-up in 1917 and 1935, New York Times and Library of Congress; J.N. “Ding” Darling cartoon from 1923, © 1999 J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation and Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.


Presidents in Carriages & Cars

This week, with the Inauguration looming, I’ve been going to the Library of Congress’s site pretty regularly, as there is a nice compilation of images and documents relating to inaugurations past, with interesting little details noted for each and every president’s swearing-in ceremony (ies). It’s interesting to see the ritual evolve over time, and the establishment of traditions. I became fixated particularly on the more contentious inaugurations: my absolute favorite is James Monroe’s first inauguration in 1817, which was forced outdoors as a feud between the Senate and the House of Representatives over whose chairs would be used for the indoor ceremony threatened to disrupt the event! Several presidents (including both Adamses) refused to attend the swearings-in of their successors and rode off in a huff. Some of the inauguration addresses are interesting; some not very. At first I thought I would feature impromptu inaugurations–or rather swearing-in ceremonies–following the abrupt death of the previous president, but that seemed a little dark, and ultimately what drew me in more than anything were the images of presidents on their way to or from their inaugurations: more candid images of expectations, excitement and resolve, depending on the circumstances. Of course this privileges the presidents who were photographed, but such shots are so very revealing:  look, for example, at the two views of President Wilson: pretty joyful at his first inauguration in 1913, much more serious at his second in 1917.

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A century of Presidents in transit and transition: Franklin Pierce leaving the Willard Hotel for his Inauguration, 1853; Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural procession, 1861; Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson in the Inaugural procession of 1883; Theodore Roosevelt in 1905; Mr. and Mrs. Taft in 1909; President Taft and President-Elect Wilson in 1913 and Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in 1917; President Hoover and President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933; President Eisenhower in 1957, all images from Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


What I want now: George Washington

I have no intention of discussing current politics on my blog which is supposed to be a break from reality for me and my readers (I hope), but the rhetoric and reality of this election is really depressing me; I’ve got to get out from under its weight in the only way I know how: by going back. We need a hero! And since today is the birthday of one (the real birthday, as opposed to last week’s more generic “Presidents’ Day”), let us focus on George Washington. Now remember, I am not an American historian so I have a rather romantic view of our first president, which suits my purpose of historical escapism. My glasses are not quite as rose-colored as those of Parson Weems and his fellow hagiographers of the nineteenth-century, but I still want to see the General and the President in vivid twentieth-century color, as an example of someone who was truthful, moderate, restrained and resigned, heroic yet humble, selfless yet self-conscious, never-seeking but always-serving, and predisposed more towards action than words. Here are some twentieth-century images, in color, which capture those qualities.

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Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, Amon Carter Museum of American Art; (I do believe Washington was truthful, but the cherry tree story is still a fable created by Parson Weems–this is an amazing HISTORICAL painting). Below, the cherry tree story is integral to Washington’s depiction by Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Heroes and Heroines (1933).

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George Washington 1910 Penfield NYPLDC picture

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Washington from the 1910s through the 1970s: leaving Mount Vernon by Edwin Penfield, the popular General by Charles Schucker, the standard of civic duty and morality. New York Public Library Digital Gallery and Smithsonian Institution.


Presidents at Play

I was going to try to do a combined Presidents Day/Olympics post but our commanders in chief seem to prefer fishing, shooting, golf and tennis to winter sports: I found a few images of Vermonter Calvin Coolidge on skis, but on the snow-less White House lawn! We want our presidents to be sportsmen now, and so there are countless photographs of President Obama shooting hoops, President Bush (43) chopping wood, President Clinton running, President Bush (41) on his cigarette boat (an image I grew up with in southern Maine) and all of the above playing golf. Every twentieth century president seem to be an avid golfer with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt, who considered golf a sissy sport. Teddy is often considered the transitional president by “presidential historians” (I hate that media made-up term): his aggressive and very public sportsmanship made it not only acceptable but nearly necessary for his successors to be as athletic and outdoorsy as possible. I think the President as Sportsman ideal precedes Teddy by about a decade, and is illustrated nicely by an 1892 New York Times Article which compares the two candidates in the forthcoming election on their “sporting tastes” (basically hunting and fishing).

Presidents as Sportsmen

This article (published on September 11, 1892) is quite hilarious, and for the most part praises the athletic pursuits of not only Cleveland and Harrison but also presidents past, with the exception (I think) of Andrew Jackson: There is no word to show that he ever fished, and it is highly improbable that he did so. Fishing is a pastime that requires patience, and if there was one quality in the world that Andrew Jackson did not possess it was the quality of patience. With shooting it was different. That is, killing violently, and Jackson must have found excitement in it.”  Two presidents in particular, John Quincy Adams and Chester A. Arthur, are singled out for their sportsmanship:  Adams is “the great swimming president” as well as “the great pedestrian president”, while Arthur is “one of the most thorough sportsmen that has ever been in the White House.” This is the view of 1892, but there is ample evidence that both presidents were criticized for their pastimes in their own times: Adams’ fondness for billiards was an issue in the 1828 election, and Arthur the Sportsmen was the object of constant caricature a half-century later.

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Chester A. Arthur, the sportsman President, at bat in “The Great National Game”, 1884 (Macbrair & Sons) and “The Great National Fishing Match/The Result”, 1885 (Courier Lithograph Co.), Library of Congress.

After Arthur, and just before Roosevelt, it is President William Howard Taft who seems to have been portrayed most often as avid sportsman by the press: the sight of his imposing presence on the field–or on the slopes– must have been irresistible. Teddy’s exploits must have changed the perceptions of the presidency quite radically, in much the same way that JFK’s public passion for sport did later on:  for both men, sport was a matter of both policy and perceptions.

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Presidents as Play


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