“I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.”
Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy. Biographical history is often painted with bright colors and written in a positive light, especially when it attains to leaders such as Presidents of the United States. Sometimes, a critical study is undertaken but even then, the route traveled is serious and often reverential. However, it is sometimes necessary to be direct, honest, and, yes, opinionated, and the truth is that Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1872, Coolidge grew up in Vermont serious and stern, if not downright shy. He went to Amherst College and began practicing law in Massachusetts after graduation, opening his own law practice in Northampton just before the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, Coolidge met and married a woman who was his polar opposite when it came to personality. Grace Anna Goodhue was vivacious and outgoing, popular and entertaining. Her first glimpse of Calvin Coolidge came two years before their marriage and was a memorable one. Grace was watering flowers and plants outside of the school for the deaf that she taught at; Calvin was standing in the room of his boardinghouse across the street, shaving in front of a full-length mirror while wearing nothing more than long underwear and a hat. The sound of Grace laughing out loud at the ridiculous sight of him led Calvin to notice his future wife for the first time and a few days later, he asked his landlord to introduce him to her.
When she married Coolidge, many of Grace’s friends were stunned at the union, unable to understand just what it was that she saw in him. What she saw was a man driven by ambition and a savage work ethic, but also a man completely incorruptible and straightforward. She also learned that her husband was not the quiet, boring, dour man that he appeared to be to the public. He was eccentric and funny, with a dry wit and mischievous streak that inspired many practical jokes. One of his favorite jokes as President was to simultaneously push every button on his desk in the White House and then hide as secretaries, military assistants, valets, Secret Service agents, and even Cabinet officers frantically searched for him.
Coolidge rose quickly in the Republican Party and Massachusetts politics, campaigning for William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and holding various local offices in the first few years of the new century. Over the next fifteen years, Coolidge climbed steadily through state and local politics, serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts State Senator, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and finally Governor in 1918. As Governor, Coolidge won nationwide popularity for his stance during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, where he famously stated that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”
Re-elected in 1919, Coolidge was nominated by the Republicans in 1920 as the running mate to Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding. Coolidge was not excited by the prospect of the Vice Presidency, but campaigned on behalf of the ticket nonetheless and Harding and Coolidge won a landslide victory and were sworn into office in March 1921. The Harding Administration was a disaster, ravaged by corruption and inefficiency, and President Harding was admittedly unqualified to be an effective or successful leader. Coolidge had very few duties as Vice President since the Vice Presidency had been a weak position in the American government up to that point in history. Most Vice Presidents floundered in obscurity, stuck in a limbo; not quite a member of Executive branch and not quite a member of the Legislative branch. Coolidge, however, was actually the first Vice President in American History to attend Cabinet meetings — something that is seemingly an automatic responsibility of the Vice President today.
Shortly after midnight on August 3, 1923, Calvin’s father, John Coolidge, was awakened by three men who knocked at the door of his farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Mr. Coolidge lived in a simple home and did not have a telephone, so the three men drove to the house from Bridgewater, a town about 15 miles away. They had urgent news to deliver and passed it to Mr. Coolidge who immediately walked upstairs and called for his son, who had been sleeping and was visiting his father while on vacation.
The Coolidge family never wasted words. John Coolidge simply notified his son that President Harding had died in San Francisco a few hours earlier. Calvin Coolidge calmly got dressed and walked across the street to a general store where he contacted Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes by telephone, drank a Moxie beverage, and left a nickel to pay for it. Coolidge then walked back across the street to his father’s home.
On the advice of Secretary Hughes and Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, Coolidge prepared to be inaugurated as President as quickly as possible. John Coolidge was a justice of the peace and notary public, and in that capacity the father administered the Presidential Oath of Office to his son at 2:47 AM on August 3, 1923. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States in the sitting room of his father’s simple home which was illuminated by candles and the light from a kerosene lamp since the house also lacked electricity. Just minutes after he officially became President, Calvin Coolidge went right back to bed and enjoyed a full night of sleep. The next morning, President Coolidge prepared to return to Washington. Despite the gravity of the situation, he only had a parting sentence for his father. As he left John Coolidge’s home, President Coolidge stumbled on a loose step in the front yard, turned to his father and simply said, “Better get that fixed” and headed to the White House.
“Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still,” President Coolidge was once quoted as saying and he was anything but an activist President. Coolidge was a forceful opponent of what we would presently identify as “big government”. One of the new President’s main objectives was to restore confidence in the federal government which had grown wildly and been infected by scandals and corruption due to bad appointments and terrible leadership by Warren G. Harding. Coolidge achieved this objective by shrinking the government, touting private business growth, and eliminating programs and economic regulations that were born from World War I. Coolidge was a small-government conservative on the scale of Ronald Reagan, but sixty years ahead of his time. In fact, one of Coolidge’s biggest fans was Reagan himself who, after becoming President in 1981, replaced a Cabinet Room portrait of Harry Truman with Coolidge.
With his focus on balancing the budget, cutting taxes, and decreasing the size and role of the federal government, Calvin Coolidge would be a dream candidate for the Republican Party here in the 21st century. “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” Coolidge said while President. Minding his own business came naturally to President Coolidge.
While he was certainly ambitious and hard-working, that hard work didn’t necessarily mean long hours in the office. Coolidge may have found admirers in successors like Reagan and George W. Bush for other reasons besides small government conservatism — it was well-known that the President enjoyed his sleep and usually slept no less than eleven hours a day. Coolidge was sure to be in bed by 10:00 PM and normally awakened between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM. As if that wasn’t enough, Coolidge somehow found enough time to religiously squeeze in a nap every single day. In fact, maybe it should be said that Coolidge somehow found enough time to squeeze in some work every single day, as his midday naps lasted anywhere from two to four hours long, leading the great journalist H. L. Mencken to observe that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but Coolidge only snores.” Coolidge insisted that his sleep habits were actually a positive for the United States — if he was asleep, he couldn’t mess anything up — and the he often woke up and asked an aide, “Is the country still here?”. One evening, the President attended the theater to see the Marx Brothers perform Animal Crackers, and upon noticing Coolidge in the audience, Groucho Marx yelled to him, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”.
Undoubtedly, the most famous aspect of Calvin Coolidge’s life and the source of his nickname, “Silent Cal”, was his legendary taciturnity. Coolidge was a man of few words who said as little as possible and only as much as necessary, treating each spoken word as if it was an endangered resource unable to be recycled and reused in the future. Coolidge’s reticence is documented in a multitude of anecdotes, most of which also highlight his sense of humor. While he said very little, what Coolidge said — or how Coolidge said it — was often very funny. One of the most well-remembered stories is of a woman seated next to President Coolidge at a dinner party who turned to Coolidge and said, “You must talk to me, Mr. President! I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge looked at the woman and simply replied, “You lose.”
During the 1924 campaign in which Coolidge won a Presidential term of his own, he answered questions for reporters who had been pleading for a question-and-answer session. One reporter asked, “Have you any statement on the campaign?”. “No,” said Coolidge. “Can you tell us something about the world situation?”, asked another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge. “Any information about Prohibition?”, asked yet another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge once again. Knowing that they weren’t going to get anything new from the President, the reporters began to disperse as Coolidge quickly said, “Now, remember — don’t quote me.”
Part of Coolidge’s reluctance to speak was that he was shy, but a bigger reason is that he was cautious. In his autobiography, Coolidge noted, “The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately”, and often said, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.” To the actress Ethel Barrymore, Coolidge said, “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them.” Coolidge’s restraint and quiet demeanor camouflaged a superb self-confidence of his own abilities. When Charles Hopkinson was painting Coolidge’s portrait a few years into his Administration, he brought up the calm demeanor that Coolidge was said to possess when learning of President Harding’s death and realizing that he was now President. “Mr. President,” the painter asked, “What was your first thought when you heard that Harding had died?” If the artist was looking for some deep insight or a fascinating revelation about the new President feeling anxiety or intimidation about the sudden and dramatic transfer of power, Hopkinson didn’t find a hint of it. On his feelings about assuming the Presidency, Coolidge simply responded, “I thought I could swing it.”
There was certainly a fun-loving side to Coolidge’s austere personality. Many Americans had no idea that their restrained President had a mechanical horse installed in the White House that he rode regularly, sometimes while pretending he was a cowboy. And, oddly enough for man who was seemingly so shy, Coolidge is seen in more newsreels and photographs than any of his predecessors — an unusual number of which depict him wearing unique hats or colorful headgear. Also, despite his reserved nature, President Coolidge held more press conferences than any of his predecessors — 529 in all. While he may not have been the most quotable of Presidents or have given reporters answers with the details they were seeking, he gave them every opportunity to ask questions.
Coolidge and his wife were animal lovers throughout their lives and though the President had very few human friends and was uncomfortable interacting with his own species socially, he doted on his pets and considered them his closest friends. Even as President, he had numerous dogs, cats, and birds living in the White House. During his Presidency, people sent him animals as gifts, and he received a black bear, lion cubs, a hippopotamus, a wallaby, a wombat, and a deer, all of which Coolidge donated to zoos. The President’s most famous pet was Rebecca the Raccoon. Rebecca lived in the White House and Coolidge spent afternoons playing with her after he finished his paperwork, sometimes even walking her around the White House on a leash.
In 1924, Coolidge won election in his own right as President, but lost much more. His 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., received a blister on his toe while playing tennis in sneakers without socks on the White House tennis courts. Shortly afterward, the blister became infected and Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning. The Coolidges were devastated and in many photographs, the President is seen wearing a black armband in mourning. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” said Coolidge. “The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”
As 1928 approached, President Coolidge was enormously popular and the country was prospering, but in August 1927, a vacationing Coolidge gathered reporters so he could make a statement. The statement was just a single sentence passed out to reporters on a slip of paper: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928”. Without further explanation, he ended the press conference and walked away. Some historians believe Coolidge retired because he felt that the next four years would require greater spending by the federal government and he was ill-equipped to manage that type of government. Others, however, believe that Coolidge understood that a financial crisis was coming and he retired in order to protect his legacy of prosperity as President.
The Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover for President in 1928, and Coolidge was lukewarm about Hoover’s candidacy, noting, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for the past six years, all of it bad.” Hoover won the election, however, and Coolidge offered the incoming President advice of his own, suggesting that Hoover could rid himself of long-winded visitors by simply sitting still and remaining completely silent until the visitor stopped talking on their own, explaining that “If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes.”. After attending Hoover’s inauguration, Coolidge retired to his home, “The Beeches”, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Just months after Hoover’s inauguration in 1929, the stock market crashed and sent the economy into the Great Depression.
In retirement, Coolidge wrote his autobiography and a syndicated newspaper column, working from home in Massachusetts and enjoying his privacy. In 1932, some Republicans were hoping to dump the unpopular President Hoover — who was destined for certain defeat — from the GOP ticket and replace him with Coolidge. When Coolidge was told that his return to the White House would “be the end of this horrible depression”, the former President replied, “It would be the beginning of mine.” Coolidge refused to be drafted as a candidate and Hoover was destroyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.
On January 5, 1933, Calvin Coolidge quietly worked on a jigsaw puzzle of George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of “The Beeches” in Northampton, Massachusetts. Grace Coolidge went into town to do some shopping at about noon and when she came home about an hour later she found her beloved husband, the 30th President of the United States, laying flat on his back on the floor in his shirtsleeves, dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 60. Fittingly, Coolidge’s last words went unrecorded and his Last Will and Testament was a total of just 23 words in length. Coolidge’s funeral was characteristically quiet and simple, and his headstone in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Plymouth, Vermont has only his name, date of birth, date of death, and a small Presidential seal inscribed at the top.
Many tributes were written and eulogies were spoken upon Coolidge’s death. With his official announcement of Coolidge’s passing, President Hoover said, “His name had become in his own lifetime a synonym for sagacity and wisdom; and his temperateness in speech and his orderly deliberation in action bespoke the profound sense of responsibility which guided his conduct of the public business.” The most appropriate tribute to Calvin Coolidge may have come from The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker. When told that Coolidge was dead, the writer said, “How can they tell?”
Thank you, I appreciate it.
Listen, I want to make something clear for those people who see the name of Jefferson Davis and automatically think that I’m some Confederate sympathizer without ever reading the essays. I’m not. When I lived in Texas for a year, I saw so many Confederate flag bumper stickers and license plates that it made me sick and was part of the reason that drove me out of the state. I had never actually seen someone displaying the Confederate flag like that. And to see it in 2010, proudly framing a license plate with “The South Will Rise Again” or “The South Was Right” was despicable to me, a guy who crew up in the inner-city in Northern California.
Those essays aren’t excusing Jefferson Davis, either. I’m not humanizing him because I’m trying to pardon him for his actions or beliefs. I’m a history-lover and I think that humanizing important historic figures is a crucial aspect of getting other people interested in history. Neil deGrasse Tyson frequently talks about the importance of “science literacy”, especially as science programs are scaled back in all levels of school. I think they same thing goes for history, and I’m trying my best to expand “history literacy” — all aspects of it. A subject like the Civil War requires studying both sides of the conflict and its causes in order to truly understand it. I think that getting people fascinated by history — especially people who are only interested in history on a casual level — often requires planting interest through biographical information. As I’ve said many times, history isn’t just the study of names and dates; history is a story about people.
Like many modern Presidents, Ronald Reagan received thousands of letters each day from supporters, opponents, lobbyists, fans, nutjobs, regular Americans, and people around the world. Like many modern Presidents, most of those letters almost never reached Ronald Reagan — but some did. To take the pulse of the American people and try to escape the White House bubble that can isolate even the most down-to-earth of Presidents, Reagan requested that his correspondence secretaries give him a sampling of about 30 letters per month. The letters were carefully screened, but not so one-sided that Reagan didn’t hear from people who weren’t happy with him or what he was doing as President.
Sometimes, Reagan simply read the letters. Most of the time, he picked up his pen and responded in his instantly recognizable handwriting and simple, smooth prose. Longtime Washington fixture Clark Clifford, a former Secretary of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson, once memorably called Ronald Reagan an “amiable dunce”. Reagan may have been amiable — although he had no close friends and even his children said that the only person who truly knew him was his wife, Nancy — but he was no dunce. Exploring the private papers of the 40th President — personal diaries, notes, correspondence, and love letters to his beloved wife — one quickly realizes that Ronald Reagan was one of the best pure writers of all American Presidents. The clarity of his writing, his common touch, and, of course, his sense of humor is readily apparent in his private responses to letters from the American people.
In 1984, 13-year-old Andy Smith of South Carolina wrote the President, “Today, my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area. I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room.” President Reagan’s response was not just funny — it also contained a subtle sermon on Reagan’s small government philosophy:
Your application for disaster relief had been duly noted but I must point out one technical problem; the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.
However, setting that aside I’ll have to point out the larger problem of available funds. This has been a year of disasters, 539 hurricanes as of May 4th and several more since, numerous floods, forest fires, drought in Texas and a number of earthquakes. What I’m getting at is that funds are dangerously low.
May I make a suggestion? This administration, believing that government has done many things that could be done by volunteers at the local level, has sponsored a Private Sector Initiative program calling upon people to practice voluntarism in the solving of a number of local problems.
Your situation appears to be a natural. I’m sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster. Therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program to go along with the more than 3,000 already underway in our nation — congratulations.
Give my best regards to your mother,
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan
A year earlier, another child, Rachel Virden of Texas, wrote to the President and mentioned that she was nervous because she was going to have to start wearing eyeglasses. Reagan sympathized and connected with the young girl:
Rachel I know how you feel about glasses. I have been nearsighted all my life and when I was young I felt as you do about wearing glasses but I wore them. Being able to see clearly was more important. Now maybe seeing me on TV or my picture in the paper you wonder where my glasses are. I’m wearing them — contact lenses. Wear your glasses now and in a few years when your eyes have reached their full size you might look into the idea of contacts. It’s very simple and easy to wear them. I’ve been wearing them all my adult life. But in the meantime don’t deny yourself the joy of being able to see things clearly.
Not all of the letters that reached Reagan’s desk were from children or easy for the President to digest. In 1982, Gail Foyt of Ohio wrote to Reagan and noted that she had voted for him in 1980 but was regretting her decision because of economic problems that deeply affected her and her family since her husband was forced to find work in another state and leave for months at a time. In her letter, Foyt suggested that the “very wealthy” President didn’t care about “people like me — not rich, nor poor — worth nothing except to each other”. Reagan, who grew up in rural Illinois during the Great Depression as the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman who was once fired on Christmas Eve, took it personally:
I wish I could tell you there is some instant answer to the economic problems besetting us but I can’t. However it is my strong belief that we are on the right track and the economy is turning up.
I hope and pray by the time you receive this your own situation is improved and that you are or soon will be united with your husband.
Mrs. Foyt your sentence with regard to my not being able to understand the real world touched a tender nerve. I grew up in poverty, although in a small midwestern town you didn’t think of yourself as poor. Maybe because the government didn’t come around and tell you, you were poor. But I do understand very well what you were saying. I’ve been making speeches for about 30 years on the fact that the forgotten men and women in America were those people who went to work, paid their bills, sent their kids to school and made this country run.
You said you’d pray for me and I’m grateful. I have a great faith in prayer and I intend to pray for you.
President Reagan continued responding to selected letters screened by his correspondence secretaries for the remainder of his Presidency — something that other Presidents have also done, including President Obama. But Ronald Reagan’s most famous letter and almost certainly his most beautiful and touching letter was the last message he ever wrote to the American people. On November 5, 1994, the 83-year-old former President released this handwritten letter on his personal stationery to the American people — a simple, elegant announcement so raw that, when he made a mistake towards the end, he merely crossed out the word and left it on the page. It was the letter that began Ronald Reagan’s long goodbye:
My fellow Americans,
I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.
In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.
So now we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.
At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.
Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.
In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
Thank you, my friends.
Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, who was never afraid to be critical or controversial about Reagan, probably summed it up best in PBS’s American Experience documentary of the 40th President:
"I can’t think of anything I’ve seen that was so transparently honest, courageous, and articulate. The writing had the ultimate quality of good writing which is unblinking acceptance of the truth. I find it very difficult to think emotionally about Ronald Reagan, but that is one thing he did that catches me in the heart — the courage with which he left his conscious life. The courage with which he stopped. He simply stopped."
President Reagan was rarely seen in public following his announcement in November 1994. The journey that led him into the sunset of his life ended on June 5, 2004, when he died at his home in Southern California at the age of 93. After full military honors, lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and the first State Funeral in over 30 years, Reagan was buried at his Presidential Library on a mountaintop in Simi Valley, California — fittingly, the 40th President was interred in his tomb at sunset.
Thank you! That Red Card essay is actually one of my personal favorites when it comes to the things I’ve written. But for those who don’t want to read about why I got ejected from a 7-year-old girls soccer game (not one of my lifetime highlights), here’s what I wrote about Aesop’s Fables that the person is referring to:
If this was one of Aesop’s Fables, the moral of the story would be that nobody fucks with my kids and makes them cry without facing a barrage of inappropriate language and outlandish threats of creative violence. Also, if this was one of Aesop’s Fables all of the characters would be creepy wild animals that somehow spoke a common language and taught each other lessons that built character even though every lesson in Aesop’s Fables was taught in about as shitty of a way as possible and designed to humiliate the animal who learned the lesson, which probably made for a very unhappy environment of distrust and wounded pride.
On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States. Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene. Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited. Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.
Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge. A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition. Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress. The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.
Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac. For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves. For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day. Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed. The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired. Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world. The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.
In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency. Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office. On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one. Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession. To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House). At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General. Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.
Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution. Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office. Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843).
President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed. The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day. When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum. As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig. Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler. Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party. With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville. Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice. So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.
Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas. The President also thought of romance. In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke. Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843. Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death. Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family. Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia. However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age. When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old. The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter.
The age difference also worried Julia’s family. Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator. She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island. Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast. After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian. For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843. Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer. By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.
Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac. As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship. Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac. As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship. The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles. As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac. The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.
When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C. The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon. At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.” However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior. Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.
Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations. President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs. Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink. Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.
On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton. The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired. The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.
Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence. President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene. The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech. The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators. Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror. Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion.
The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high. Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast. Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead. The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead. American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead. President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead. And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion. A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened. Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.
The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors. Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs. Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve. When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler. Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed.
As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could. For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse. Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.
When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship. On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank. I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.” President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.
The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th. The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city. The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed. As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room. (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)
After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion). It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally. Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.
The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal: the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier. The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York. After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral. Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.
The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President. Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion. Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter. Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.
Still, the marriage was not without controversy. The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion. Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key. Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride. After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter. One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office. Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.
Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844. Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple). According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.
When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest. They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife. In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives. Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War. On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors. Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.
Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living. With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today. Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.
As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion. Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey. The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended. It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned. A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean. On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed. Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.
Well, first of all, there are no rejection letters!
It helps if you have a platform to push your book since you want have a publishing company’s marketing apparatus behind you if you go the e-book route with Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble. You’ll have to sell every book yourself, so that’s important to remember.
With that said, it is easy to do. It’s fast. You can set your own price (and change that price if need be), and you’ll get a bigger percentage of the profits with the royalty rate than you’d get from a publisher. You’ll definitely be leaving a lot on the table, but you’ll get your work out there, and if you have a platform or work your ass off at plugging your book, you can make money. You can make money internationally, too. I just mentioned the other day on Facebook that I’ve been selling more books lately in the United Kingdom than I have been in the United States. I’ve also had buyers in India, Spain, the Philippines, France, and Japan, among other countries.
It’s not perfect and it’s not easy to make your book standout among the hundreds of thousands of others on Amazon. But if you find a way, you can definitely sell books and make some money.
I might have said all of this before, but I think Caro’s study of LBJ is probably the most remarkable biographical work — ever. In the history of the written word.
It’s certainly the definitive biography of an American President (and, after four lengthy volumes, it’s still not finished) and probably one of the best studies ever undertaken about the accumulation and exercise of power. Caro has spent nearly as much time researching and writing about Lyndon Johnson’s life as Lyndon Johnson spent actually living (the first volume was released in 1981). I mean, take away the fact that the books are about a President (and my favorite President, at that) and I’d still say that it’s probably the greatest work of biography that I’ve ever read. And I have read a lot of biographies.
Theodore Roosevelt was a shooting star — 5’8” of barely controlled frenzy. An energetic workaholic, familyaholic, and lifeaholic who lived every day of his relatively short life to its fullest and savored each and every battle throughout 60 busy years on Earth. As Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, said, “Death had to take Roosevelt while he was sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
Every milestone in Roosevelt’s life was reached at a younger age than almost anyone else in American history. Elected to the New York State Assembly at 23; a delegate to the Republican National Convention at 25; a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory at 26; an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York City at 28; appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison at 31; elected president of the New York City Police Board to clean up corruption in the police force at the age of 37; and appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley before resigning to volunteer for the Spanish-American War and then returning from Cuba as a war hero to launch a successful campaign for Governor of New York, all before his 40th birthday in October 1898.
Initially supported by New York’s Republican party boss, Thomas Platt, Governor Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from Boss Platt by ignoring his advice and pushing through an agenda aimed at reform in government, and laws protecting worker’s rights. After the Governor signed a new law implementing a state tax on New York’s corporations, Boss Platt worked hard to get Roosevelt nominated as Vice President on President McKinley’s ticket in 1900, mostly to get Roosevelt out of New York state politics and into an office where he couldn’t do any damage — the weak Vice Presidency of the late-19th/early-20th century. Roosevelt was not interested in leaving Albany to take the boring job of Vice President, but changed his mind after the encouragement of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who felt that it would expand Roosevelt’s profile nationally and help set up a future bid for the Presidency. McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the 1900 election, and Roosevelt kept himself occupied during the campaign by speaking in 567 cities and towns throughout 24 of the 45 states.
Less than a year later, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States (and is still the youngest President in American history), thrust into the Presidency when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo. At his side as he moved into the White House was his wife, Edith, and his six children. Roosevelt leaped into the role of President and had fun with the job while continuing to live what he called “the strenuous life”. For the rest of that “strenuous life” — including a “retirement” which was a retirement in name only — Roosevelt continued to practice politics, hunt, look for new challenges, write, and fight. But there was one battle that Theodore Roosevelt could not fight and would not face — and it started on the saddest Valentine’s Day of all-time.
Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a tragic day for Theodore Roosevelt. On February 14, 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee, a beautiful girl from Massachusetts three years younger than he was. Theodore and Alice had met on October 18, 1878 when Theodore, a student at Harvard, encountered her at the home of Richard Saltonstall — Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s classmate and friend. Roosevelt was immediately taken by Alice’s beauty and intelligence, writing that “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.” A month later, he was convinced that he wanted to marry her, but it took him much longer to convince her. He proposed in June 1879 and Alice finally said yes at the beginning of 1880. On February 13, 1880, Roosevelt spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to announce their engagement. That night, as he often did, Roosevelt wrote in his pocket diary about his feelings for Alice:
“She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and loveable and pretty that I seem to love her more and more every time I see her, though I love her so much now that I really can not love her more. I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her; for a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her. And now I can scarcely realize that I can hold her in my arms and kiss her and caress her and love her as much as I choose.”
Theodore and Alice married on his 22nd birthday, October 27, 1880 at the home of Alice’s parents in Brookline, Massachusetts. Among the guests in attendance was Edith Kermit Carow, who later became Roosevelt’s second wife and the nation’s First Lady. The newly married couple spent their wedding night in Springfield, Massachusetts and a two-week honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York before Theodore plunged right back into his work. Despite his busy, frenetic lifestyle, Theodore’s love for Alice never wavered. He wrote her long, loving letters and spent as much time as possible doting on his young wife. As his political career took off and he served in the New York State Assembly, politicians who called at his home in New York City were charmed by Alice, and Theodore’s feelings for her were as strong as they were during their courtship in Cambridge. As the Roosevelts celebrated their third wedding anniversary in October 1883, Alice was pregnant with their first child and Roosevelt was preparing a run for Speaker of the New York State Assembly.
Running for the speakership was tough work for a 25-year-old that had spent barely two years in the Assembly, but Roosevelt and some of his supporters felt that he had the votes necessary to win the Speaker’s chair. This campaign required Roosevelt to spend even more time in Albany lining up votes, and he would rush home whenever possible to visit his pregnant wife. Alice felt lonely at times, but understood Theodore’s drive and ambition. She only saw her husband on weekends and Roosevelt tried to help Alice out by having her stay with his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (who had recently had a baby herself) and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles, at the family home in New York City on West 57th Street. It was difficult at times for Alice, but she loved her husband’s family and supported her husband’s ambitions, and tried to bear the separation cheerfully.
The separation wasn’t easy for Roosevelt, either. On February 6, 1884, he wrote to Alice, “How did I hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon! I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife. I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.” Roosevelt had lost the race for Speaker, but immediately threw himself into an investigation of corruption within the government of New York City. In Albany on February 11, Roosevelt adjourned his committee’s investigation for a week and headed home to New York City for the birth of his first child. Arriving there on February 12th, it appeared as if Alice was still a few days away from having the baby. Roosevelt left her in the care of Bamie since his mother, Mittie, seemed to be suffering from a heavy cold, and then rushed back to Albany to work on a bill which proposed to give more executive power to the Mayor of New York City. At the Capitol the next morning, Roosevelt received a telegram notifying him that Alice had given birth to a baby girl the previous night. The telegram noted that Alice was doing “only fairly well”, but Roosevelt chalked that up to the difficulties of a young mother’s first delivery in the rough 1880’s. Roosevelt continued to try to get some work done for a few more hours before he planned to catch a train back to New York City to greet his loving wife and his new daughter.
Just a few hours later, Theodore Roosevelt was on a train heading to New York City, but the joyous visage of the brand-new father had been replaced by a worrisome and “worn” look cemented upon his face after receiving a second telegram in Albany. The contents of this telegram are lost to history, but they caused Roosevelt to rush home to his 22-year-old wife and their newborn daughter. In perfect weather, the train ride from Albany-to-New York City took five hours in 1884, and the weather on February 13th was not perfect. It was foggy and cold and Roosevelt finally arrived at Grand Central Station at about 10:30 PM, rushing home through the foggy New York City streets and finding the home at 6 West 57th Street dark other than a gaslight on the third floor.
Upstairs, Theodore’s young wife and the mother of his newborn daughter, was gravely ill. The childbirth was rough, but Alice Roosevelt was also suffering from undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, a terminal illness during the time period, and an illness which was rapidly causing Alice’s kidneys to fail. Theodore held his love in his arms, barely noticing the new life that she brought into the world at the risk of losing her own. Alice fell in-and-out of consciousness, only sometimes recognizing the man at her bedside. As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was sickly, pale, and asthmatic and through sheer willpower and, yes, “strenuous” exercise, he built his body into a strong, robust, athletic man as solid as the bust that pays tribute to him today on Mount Rushmore. As February 14th — the fourth anniversary of his engagement to Alice — began, Theodore tried to summon that ability to conquer poor health in order to save the love of his life.
Downstairs, Theodore’s 48-year-old mother, Mittie, did not have a bad cold. She had typhoid fever, and in his rush to attempt to help nurse his wife back to health — if only with the ineffective tools of hope — Roosevelt had hardly noticed that his mother was also near-death. At 3:00 AM on February 14, 1884, the sadness in the Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street turned to devastation, when Mittie died shortly after Theodore kissed her goodbye. Before Theodore had arrived home from Albany, his brother Elliott left their mother’s home after telling Corinne, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.” As Theodore walked back upstairs to attend to Alice, he agreed with his brother’s statement: “There IS a curse on this house.”
Alice tried to fight, but her kidneys had failed her, childbirth had weakened her, and the melancholy mood in the house couldn’t help to strengthen anybody’s spirits. Theodore continued holding Alice in his arms and that’s where she was when she died at 2:00 PM on the fourth anniversary of their engagement announcement, less than two days after the birth of their still-unnamed daughter. Since he first cast his eyes upon Alice’s face in 1878, Theodore Roosevelt had filled pages of his diary by writing about her nearly as often as he thought about her. He noted the simplest expressions, the smallest acts of recognition, the quietest smiles, the loudest silences, and every action that resulted in a memory that they could replay again-and-again in the future that they had planned together. In his ever-present pocket diary on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt simply wrote an “X” above one striking sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
Two days later, the dazed widower sat expressionless in his pew at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as the two identical rosewood caskets of his mother and wife stood side-by-side at the altar. The day after the deaths, the New York State Assembly paid tribute by adjourning in sympathy after speakers eulogized the women and expressed support for their stricken colleague. In the days that followed, Theodore Roosevelt withdrew, unable to process the heavy pain he was feeling and showing no interest in his newborn baby, christened Alice Lee after her late mother. Friends worried about Roosevelt’s mindframe and newspapers predicted that he would never recover from the blow he had suffered.
We know now that he did recover. Just 27 years old when he lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, Roosevelt couldn’t even bear to say the name of his new daughter because it reminded him of her mother. Instead of “Alice Lee”, he called her “Baby Lee” in her infancy and turned her care over to Bamie so that he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory. There he remained for two years, working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff, writing and recovering from his sudden, tremendously heartbreaking loss. He returned to New York in October 1886 and re-launched his political career, not stopping until he handed the Presidency over to hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1908. Even then, he was still involved, challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, bolting the party when Taft was nominated and running as a third-party candidate that fall, hunting, writing books, and preparing for another run for the Presidency when he died suddenly in January 1919.
Theodore Roosevelt recovered and made history, but the pain that he felt probably never dissipated. It was also never again mentioned. Two days after the funeral, he wrote a short biography of Alice in his diary, ending “For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.” Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote that “Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice Lee from his soul. Nostalgia, a weakness to which he was abnormally vulnerable, could be indulged if it was pleasant, but if painful it must be suppressed, ‘until the memory is too dead to throb.’” Alice Hathaway Lee’s existence may have crossed his mind or remained in his heart, but her name never again passed through his lips. Their daughter — Alice’s namesake — entered adulthood without ever hearing her father speak of her mother. It was simply too painful for this, probably the bravest of Presidents. Following his Presidency, Roosevelt wrote his Autobiography, which was detailed and thorough, but he didn’t mention his first wife even once. Letters were destroyed, photographs were were burned, and Roosevelt’s only method of coping with her absence was pretending that she was never there in the first place. He once wrote of Alice that “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.” Once he did lose her, he certainly lost a part of himself.
Immediately following Alice’s death, Theodore told a friend that he was “beyond healing and time will never change me in that respect”. Roosevelt remarried in 1886 and had five more children, but his silence about Alice’s impact on his life is just as striking as the words he wrote about her while she was alive. In August 1974, President Richard Nixon — one of Roosevelt’s successors and biggest admirers — resigned from the Presidency and in his final speech as President, to White House staff gathered in the East Room, quoted from one of only two references that Roosevelt made to Alice following her death:
"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."
Theodore Roosevelt went on to achieve his ambitions and realize great success, but his tribute to Alice bears witness to his pain and gives extra symbolism to the lion’s last words before his heart gave out in 1919: “Please put out the light.”
Believe it or not, it’s not that easy to just constantly churn out completely original pieces of writing on history which not only need to be quality work but also need to be accurate and do justice to the subjects being written about. I’d love to post a new essay every day, but it does require some effort and inspiration to put together pieces that usually average between 3,000-5,000 words in length.
Also, I love sharing my work with my readers here on Tumblr and there are dozens of essays on all sorts of people and events readily available for free here on my site, but I haven’t posted everything that I’ve written — particularly over the last 6 to 10 months — on Dead Presidents. I’ve been working on a collection of my writing for publication and I’ve had to hold back some essays so that my book will feature some exclusive new writing. Publishers (and readers) aren’t usually too excited about paying for something that they can get for free by sifting through a blog.
So, it’s not that I’ve stopped writing new essays — and it doesn’t mean that every new thing that I am writing is being saved for my new book. But understand that if I could produce a brand-new, totally original, longform essay on history every single day I would be doing it. (I’d also probably be a far more successful writer!) Unfortunately, this stuff actually requires hard work.
Ideally, I would have written Part II about four or five years ago, after I wrote the first part. I should probably remove the “Part I” from the title of that essay because I have no idea if I’ll ever get around to adding to it.
I don’t want to sound all pretentious and talk about “my process”, but I have a really tough time going back to something I previously wrote and trying to rewrite it or pick up where I left off to try to add to it. When I write the essays that you guys read, you’re always reading the first draft. But you’re also reading the finished product because I don’t write second drafts. If I write an essay, it is something that I start, finish, and post in one sitting. If I get stuck or interrupted and don’t finish an essay for some reason, I can’t come back to it later. I could be 4,000 words deep into something, but if I hit a wall or get interrupted, that essay (and usually the idea behind it) is dead. I just delete it. I would be a way better (and more successful) writer if I had more discipline (and an editor), but the only way I know how to tell stories is the way I do it. So that’s why I throw tens of thousands of words away every month and why the sequel to “A Paralyzed Presidency” has spent five years in my own little version of development hell.